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Why Sexual Abuse Survivors Find It Difficult to Forget: New Studies on How the Brain Stores Traumatic Memories

Updated on March 2, 2013
GarnetBird profile image

Gloria taught for many years, and also worked as a mental health group facilitator.


By Gloria Siess, {"Garnetbird"}

"I have this friend," a lady once said to me, "Who was sexually abused as a little boy, and tied down. He is bi-polar, depressed, and can't even wear a seat belt when he drives. Why can't he just forget all that negative stuff and move on with his life?"

This amazing conversation took place in a small auto dealership in a sleepy mountain town. The woman who asked me this question was not being cold or uncaring--she simply could not understand why her friend would find it so hard to let go of the past. To many incest survivors--myself included-the simple cliche advice to "get moving on with your life," has all the charm of a funeral song. Many do not accept the fact that childhood sexual abuse causes actual brain alterations and damage (See Dr. Bremners work at Yale). Now more research has come forth to indicate that traumatic memories are stored differently and with more intensity than so called normal ones.

According to Dr. Carvers' article on Emotional Memory Management, traumatic memories take up more space in the brain, and take more time to process. The longer and more severe the abuse, the more storage space in the brain gets activated. Good memories do not carry with them the intense emotions of negative experiences, demanding less attention in the mysterious world of the brain. To put it simply, the more horrific the memory, the more intense the emotions, the more space in your mental file cabinet is utilized. Unimportant memories, such as how many times you turn on the television in the course of a day, are usually dumped by the brain within five days.

Rape, murder and incest, have powerful emotions associated with the events. These type of experiences actually release chemicals into the brain itself. When triggered, the mind will pull up the incest experience from its "file," flooding the survivor with dreadful recall. There are specific therapies for this, but the purpose of this article is not to offer solutions. It is to comfort survivors who have been called weak and self-pitying when they simply could not forget and carry on as though nothing at all had happened to them.


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    • GarnetBird profile image

      Gloria Siess 4 years ago from Wrightwood, California

      Thanks for your comment!! I agree.

    • TheHopefulPoet profile image

      Jennifer 4 years ago from Florida

      Wow! It makes a lot more sense to me now why I can not remember so many simple things like people I went to school with, things I did with friends etc yet I remember the sexual and emotional abuse so well. I've always wondered why my memories of happier times seems so foggy. Thank you so much for sharing this information!!!!

    • GarnetBird profile image

      Gloria Siess 5 years ago from Wrightwood, California

      Thank you Chris!!

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 5 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Thanks. Nobody can really fully appreciate this pain, until they have been there themselves. That is why this kind of crime is so obnoxious.

    • GarnetBird profile image

      Gloria Siess 5 years ago from Wrightwood, California

      Thank you soooo much for validating this Hub; I was torn as to whether or not to write it, as sometimes it triggers me. I, too, went through a rage period and came out on the other side a calmer, stronger person.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      This sort of PTSD is very hard to get through. It is a combat that rages on. You wrote this very well, and included specific workings in the brain...very well done!

    • Gail Meyers profile image

      Gail Meyers 5 years ago from Kansas City - United States

      You make an excellent point, GarnetBird! I am also an incest survivor. I can not tell you the number of times I heard that, especially during my early twenties when I was in therapy for three years. I think some do make the comment innocently because they have no point of reference in their own lives upon which to base their understanding.

      However, I also believe family members will often make such comments. Sexual abuse can often be traced back as far as one can see in a family for generations. Previous generations usually did not talk about such things. So if you are the first generation to seek healing and wholeness through therapy, family members who have not dealt with their own sexual abuse will often also want you to keep your skeletons in the closet for fear some of their own may jump out during your healing process.

      It is extremely unhelpful when you are dealing with trauma, flashback, PTSD, etc., to have someone say, even in ignorance, for you just to "forget the past" as if you can just flip a switch but have instead chosen a painful recovery process. It quickly became to me like a slap in the face to hear it from someone.

      I would also like to encourage anyone who feels they are in the deepest darkness of their healing. My rage terrified me when I first got in touch with it because it was so consuming and strong, but it did subside. The flashbacks, dealt with as they came up, did stop. The pain does end. Healing is hard, painful work, but it is worth the effort. Voted up!