Triggers as trail-heads: How the body remembers
Updated: Apr 13, 2020
In my last post I talked about how healthy anger helps boost our immune system. Before we can get to distinguishing healthy and unhealthy anger, we must understand implicit memory.
Memory is a huge, important topic, and I am still early on in my learning about how memory works. I’m going to give a bird’s eye view to help explain it in a very simplistic way. If you are interested in learning more, there are tons of good resources, but I highly recommend reading Peter Levine’s book Trauma and Memory. Another good resource is Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score.
Explicit and implicit memory
Humans have different forms of memory. For our purposes, let’s look at two major buckets that memory fall into: explicit memory and implicit memory. Explicit memory is what most people are referring to when they talk about “remembering” something. It’s generally the “who/what/when/where/why” of the past. It’s more or less sequential, has a logical progression, and the narrative is mostly intact. I’m drawing on explicit memory when I tell you that today I woke up, then I took a shower, then I made coffee, then I ate breakfast, and then I started working. Explicit memory tracks facts, dates, the order of events, and the like.
Implicit memory, by contrast, is memory that gets stored in our unconscious brain, body, and nervous system. The saying “It’s like riding a bike” describes implicit memory. If I asked you to remember the first time you learned to ride a bike, you might tell me where you were, who was there, and other factual details; in doing this you are using explicit memory. You most likely will also have implicit memory from this experience in the form of feelings, emotions, and your body’s knowledge of how to ride a bike. If I asked you to explain how to ride a bike, you could probably tell me that you have to swing your leg over the seat, put your foot on the pedal, grasp the handles, and so on; but you most likely wouldn’t have words for how to swing your leg over the bike…you just do it!
[Take a look at this infographic from NICABM for a more on the difference between explicit and implicit memory.]
To over-simplify: explicit memory is that for which you easily have words, and implicit memory is what isn’t easily described. This distinction can be helpful when developing an understanding of the different types of memory. Implicit memory is also largely out of our conscious awareness and although we draw on it every day, all day long, we’re not doing it consciously per se. When I wake up in the morning and sit up in bed, I’m using implicit memory but I’m not consciously thinking “and now I will use my implicit memory to remember how to sit up.” Implicit memory happens far more automatically and unconsciously than that. Consider how many times you have gotten in your car to drive somewhere, arrived at your destination, and had little to no memory of the drive. Your body, using implicit memory, took over the task of driving while your mind was off in thought.
Our earliest memories are implicit memories
These two types of memory often work in tandem, starting from when we’re about 18 months old. This is the age when a structure in our brain called the hippocampus, a key player in laying down explicit memory, is fully developed. The hippocampus essentially puts a “time stamp” on explicit memory so our system knows that it happened in the past. Until this age our memories are stored as implicit memory. This is the reason why childhood trauma can be so detrimental to us later in life. The brain doesn’t realize that the stress has passed, and our body acts as if it's still happening. This can set the stage for anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and other health conditions. And, it’s more difficult to unwind early childhood stress because there is seemingly no context to the symptoms. It’s not impossible, however; it’s just that this type of injury must be healed through the body because it happened before we had language and we won’t be able to explicitly remember it.
Even after the age of 18 months, when the body goes into stress response the hippocampus goes offline. When we are stressed, memory gets stored in the form of implicit memory, preventing our brain from recognizing that the event happened in the past. This is why your memory of certain events, especially stressful ones, might be hazy or even nonexistent. Or, you might only remember a phrase, a smell, and/or a strong emotion, but many of the other details will be lost.
Let’s look at some examples of what happens when implicit memory gets triggered by something in the present.
My grandmother wore pretty heavy perfume, so whenever I smell perfume similar to the one she used I automatically think of her.
Just by looking at a photo of my dogs I can feel the same emotions I feel when I am with them: joy, love, and that warm fuzzy feeling.
I went on a bike tour trip with two friends in my twenties and we sang a lot of songs to help the miles go by. Whenever I hear one of those songs, I am immediately taken back to the feeling of the California sunshine on my face.
Since the memories of my grandma, my dogs, and my bike trip weren’t overly stressful, my hippocampus stays online and I know I am still in the present moment and these things happened in the past.
Implicit memory and trauma
Now let’s look at an example of implicit memory in the context of a stressful or traumatic situation.
A man gets rear-ended as he is driving home from work. Now every time he drives home from work, he feels extremely anxious.
A woman’s father was an alcoholic and got violent when he drank. She starts dating someone and when they are cuddling on the couch, she smells alcohol on their breath and gets the same sinking feeling she had when her father was drunk.
A veteran has an intense reaction to cars backfiring or fireworks going off after coming home from war.
In these examples, the man, the woman, and the veteran all had their hippocampus go offline during the original threatening situation, so their system can’t distinguish between what is happening in the present and what happened in the past. The subtitle to Peter Levine’s book Trauma and Memory is “Brain and body in a search for the living past.” Our bodies still remember many of the things we wish could be forgotten for good.
The last three examples are difficult enough for those who are experiencing them. But what happens when implicit memory gets triggered without any identifiable cause? If you’ve ever had a panic attack that came seemingly out of the blue, you have experienced this. Because so much of what our brain and body are responding to is out of our conscious awareness, implicit memory is activated all the time and we may never understand why, or even be fully aware that it’s happening. We may just know that we feel uneasy around a new person, or we start to feel anxious at work, or enraged at the person who cut us off in traffic, or afraid of the grocery store. We feel these things even though this new person hasn’t done anything wrong, we know that we’re not in danger at work or the grocery store, and we know that that person probably didn’t mean to cut us off in traffic. This can be extremely crazy-making if you don't understand what's happening. A good clue that implicit memory has been triggered is whenever your response to a situation seems disproportionate given what’s actually happening in the present moment.
Trailheads on the journey to healing
The upside of implicit memory of past stresses surfacing is that it’s a great opportunity to heal what is unhealed within us. Getting “triggered” is like finding a trail head that, if we follow it, can lead us to the root of what’s actually bothering us. It’s not always an easy journey, but tracing our triggers back to our original wounding is the only way to resolve them. Getting irrationally angry at the a**hole who cut you off in traffic won’t actually resolve your anger. It might be a temporary pressure release, which has some value, but it isn’t the cure for your road rage. Instead, you can use the fact that you are still complaining about that driver and it’s been a week since it actually happened as a wake-up call that there’s something deeper going on. Our triggers can heal us, if we are willing to listen to them.
Now that we’ve discussed implicit memory, we can get on with the next post about distinguishing between healthy and unhealthy anger, and what to do about it.