It’s a heartbreaking question asked by people who suspect they have DID. Between amnesia, denial, disgust, disbelief and fear, trying to find the answer to this question is painful. You can seek validation by sharing your story with a friend, therapist or support group… but let’s get real. Opening up about your past is really hard.
So what is trauma? How are traumatic memories created and stored, and what does that mean for your health? Let’s start with a breakdown of trauma and triggers.
Does your background make you vulnerable to being traumatized?
Think of your brain like a tree. As a sapling it needs support, nutrients, and a complex balance of environmental elements to grow strong and tall. It needs a good gardener. When it doesn’t have these things, if there’s a toxic atmosphere, a malicious gardener, not enough resources or support, it’s a bad time waiting to happen. When hurricanes Shitty Childhood A-Z roll through, that sapling is in trouble.
Those hurricanes can be things like:
- Childhood Trauma, where negative events that are emotionally painful overwhelm a child’s ability to cope. That can include natural disasters, the death of a caregiver/sibling, invasive medical treatments, bullying, and so on..
- Childhood Abuse, where the child is actively harmed by those charged with their care, in a position of power or authority over them.
- Physical Abuse – anything that deliberately cause the child pain and leads to injury
- Sexual Abuse – with a key factor being the betrayal of trust involved
- Psychological Abuse – intentionally causing fear in a child, injuring their dignity, threatening abandonment, harming things they care about, berating and scapegoating, containment and humiliation
- Neglect – the caregiver doesn’t provide enough food, clothing, shelter, loving physical touch, or medical care
You don’t need great caregivers but if they’re not even “good enough” you’ll grow up less capable of surviving the storm when it hits.
Did you experience something threatening?
Every moment of every day, your brain is taking in information from the world around you. This sensory information is sorted in the thalamus and sent to the amygdala, to determine if you are being threatened.
*Yep, sense of smell cheats and skips a step.
Whether the threat is real or not, at this stage, your amygdala only uses your senses and instincts to make the call. No higher brain, no logic. Oh, and it reacts 7 times faster than you can blink. The Amygdala kicks off an automatic response based on whether or not it thinks you’re being threatened, and that includes deciding where to store the memories.
Did you have an emotional response?
Nothing complicated about this one; were you afraid? Even terrified? Any strong emotion counts but those are the common ones that people identify.
Did you perceive the situation or event as inescapable?
If we cannot escape, if we cannot regain control of our situation, it contributes to the chance of a memory being traumatizing. There are obvious situations where we literally cannot escape, but there others, where when we’re stuck, helpless, and at the mercy of others.
Traumatic memories are special.
Traumatic memories aren’t just stored as facts, like most memories. They’re bundled up with emotions and sensory inputs, so that in the future you’ll automatically respond to the threat the same way. It’s a useful survival mechanism: if something is a threat, you want your amygdala making the lightening-quick calls.
If you experience a sensory trigger similar to one in your memory that is attached to trauma, your brain doesn’t just remember the details, it feels the emotions all over again. Your experiences can range from feeling the sensations as vividly as the moment the memory occurred, to just a mild and often “source-less” feeling of unease.
Bringing it all together
Was your childhood “good enough”, or did you experience situations where you felt threatened, had a serious emotional response like fear, and couldn’t escape? A therapist can help you answer these questions but if you’ve made it this far, you may already know the answer.
Good news? You can fix it. If that kind of bait doesn’t bring you back here, I don’t know what will.
‘Til then, if you’re plagued by triggers, start grounding every day. It’s the best tool to pull your mind out of the past, remind you that you exist firmly in the future, and lower your anxiety.