How Trauma Impacts Memory
Dr. Caroline Leaf – In this podcast (episode #322) and blog, I am going to talk about how memory changes over time, what influences memory loss, and how we can all improve our memory.
Contrary to popular belief, memory doesn’t just get worse as we age. It changes from being detail-focused to becoming more conceptual and integrated based on our many experiences. The brain is in fact the only organ that can get better with age, which is great news! But there is a caveat: to get better, we need to know how to use the brain well. If we don’t use our brain properly, then memory, amongst other things, can decline.
We need to remember that the mind is separate from the brain and powers the brain; the brain responds to our mind. The mind is like the power that charges your cellphone and computer, which are like the brain and body parts. Whatever we do with our minds will affect our brains.
The mind is the phenomenal and powerful ability we have as humans to think, feel and choose. (These three are a triad and can never be separated.) Through our minds, we process information from the world into our brains. This processing of information changes the way energy flows through the brain, creating a neurochemical, electromagnetic and genetic response in the brain, which results in a thought being built from proteins into the brain that looks like a tree. This whole process is called neuroplasticity.
Like a tree is made of branches and roots, a thought is made up of “branches and roots”, which are our memories. Memories are literally what is inside a thought: all the knowledge in the form of details, information, emotions, choices, and perceptions.
The causes of memory loss are multiple, including:
1. TBIs (traumatic brain injuries)
2. Learning disabilities
5. Brain tumors
6. Substance addictions
7. Suppressed trauma and toxic habits
Uncontrolled toxic thinking has the potential to create a state of low-grade inflammation across the body and brain, affecting cortisol levels, hormones, inflammatory factors, brain functionality and even the telomeres on chromosomes, all of which can impact our memory.
Toxic trauma involves something that happened to us that was out of our control, and often results in a pervasive feeling of threat. It includes things like adverse childhood experiences, traumatic experiences at any age, war trauma, and all forms of abuse, including racial aggression and socioeconomic oppression. Trauma is probably the hardest thought pattern to work on, but it is so essential because trauma is built into the brain, mind and body as an actual physical structure made of proteins and has high energy and intensity due to the data and emotions attached to the event. They are volcanic and will explode, and if undealt with, can contribute to cognitive decline. Toxic trauma requires a lot of work, time, grace, and self-compassion, as it involves embracing, processing, and reconceptualizing things that are generally incredibly painful and upsetting, which is why I always recommend working through this process with a mental health professional.
Toxic habits are negative behavioral patterns that have been established over time, like getting irritated in traffic, snapping at a loved one, or allowing ourselves to go down worry “rabbit holes” by always seeing the negative. Because we build toxic habits into our mind over time and repeat them often, they can feel like they’re a natural part of us. But they really aren’t, because we aren’t wired for toxicity. They’re destructive habits that can cause lots of toxic stress in our brains and bodies and impact our memory. They need to be identified, uprooted, and reconceptualized into constructive thinking habits.
For more on toxic thoughts and trauma, see my latest book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess and my recent clinical trials.
8. Unmanaged toxic stress.
If we aren’t managing the stressors of life, this can affect our protein thought trees with their memories, which, in turn, can create a lot of mini patterns of brain damage. Over time, this damage can negatively impact the memories inside of our thoughts, as well as the process of memory-building. Indeed, it’s a well-established fact that unmanaged, chronic stress can damage the brain and body, increasing our vulnerability to disease and affecting memory over time. There is a significant amount of research indicating that suppression of thoughts, which causes mental distress, is related to telomere shortening (shortening the ends of chromosomes), biological aging and cognitive decline. (For more on this also see my latest book Cleaning Up Your Mental Messand my recent clinical trials.)
9. Not learning. Our brain is a hungry organ when it comes to knowledge. We need to be learning and brain-building every day or, over time, we can build up toxic waste in the mind and brain, which can also affect memory, as I spoke about in detail in a recent podcast and blog.
10. Lack of sleep. We know a lack of good quality sleep has a negative impact on memory formation, amongst a myriad of other factors. One of the main reasons people don’t sleep well is because of unmanaged mental health, which can create a dysregulated pattern in the brain that affects the processing of information.
11. Diet and exercise. Other lifestyle factors, such as diet and exercise, are also important to consider when it comes to memory.
12. Changes in the brain’s biology. Some of the changes in the brain associated with unmanaged minds include brain mass shrinkage, brain inflammation, changes in the DNA (such as shortening of telomeres), damage to neurons, reduced blood and oxygen flow to the brain, and incoherent brainwave patterns in different areas of the brain (such as the entorhinal cortex, which is very important in the processing of information, and the hippocampus, which is involved in the conversion from short to long-term memory in thoughts). There are many factors that can affect the brain’s biology, including those discussed in the previous points above.
But the great news is that it is possible to protect memory and improve brain health, even as you age! You can do this by:
1. Leading a life of mind-management:
This means developing the habit of self-regulating how you think, feel and choose in response to the experiences of life for pretty much the whole time you are awake. The mind-brain-body (psychoneurobiology) link is well established in the scientific literature, and what it consistently shows is that it’s important that we learn how to catch and alter our thoughts and reactions before they become toxic neural networks and habits that damage the mind, brain and body.
Toxic thoughts, depression and anxiety are signals of a mental mess—something that we, as humans, all experience. Indeed, a mental mess isn’t something we should be ashamed of; rather, we need to learn how to manage this mess and listen to our mind and body’s signals so that they don’t increase our vulnerability to disease and cognitive decline.
One of the best ways to manage your mind and deal with everyday stressors is to make self-regulation a daily habit. To this end, I recommend using my Neurocycle mind-management technique, which I discuss in detail in my latest book, Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess and my app Neurocycle.
The Neurocycle is a way to harness your thinking power through mind-management that I have developed and researched over the past three decades; any task that requires thinking can use it, which means everything can, because you’re always thinking! This de-stressing, self-regulation technique can really work with any issue, and can be done anywhere, any place and at any time—all you need is you!
First, calm the brain down by breathing deeply. I recommend breathing in for 5 counts and out for 11 counts, and repeating this technique 3 times (for around 45 seconds).
Then, GATHER awareness of the emotional and physical warning signals your body is sending you, such as tension in your shoulders, forgetfulness or feelings of unease. Embrace these signals; don’t judge them or try to suppress them.
Now, REFLECT on how you feel; ask, answer and discuss why you are feeling the way you do. Use specific sentences, like “I tend to forget things when…”. What is happening during the day that may be affecting how you manage your life experiences and build thoughts into your brain?
After reflecting, WRITE down what you feel and why. This will help you gain clarity into your thinking and behavior.
Then, RECHECK what you have written, looking for your triggers and the thought patterns you may have developed that are affecting how you build memory. For example, you may notice that you start stressing before work, which affects how you function at the office. What is your “antidote”? How will you reconceptualize this way of thinking and acting to improve how you manage this stress?
Lastly, take action. I call this step the ACTIVE REACH. This can be a positive statement that validates your feelings, or an action, such as having more “thinker moments” in your day, where you switch off to the external and onto the internal and just let your mind wander and daydream for about a minute. These thinker moments help calm down anxious thinking and reboot your mind, improving your brain health and ability to build memory.
This mind-management process is also a great way to detox trauma and negative thinking habits that can affect memory, as discussed above.
2. Recognizing that “young” is often a feeling:
Recent research highlighting the effect of chronic unmanaged stress and cognitive decline shows an interesting link between subjective age and health. It appears that people who feel younger, regardless of their actual age, tend to have a greater sense of wellbeing, better cognitive functioning, better memory formation, less inflammation, lower risk of hospitalization and longer lifespans. It appears that thinking about “feeling younger” can act as a stress buffer and improve overall wellbeing, which is why it is important to remember that age is often just a number!
As mentioned above, learning and brain-building is so important when it comes to memory formation and the overall health of our brains. Brain-building means training the brain to learn how to learn in an organized and meaningful way, and it is something that everyone can learn how to do!
Throughout the brain-building process, it is important to remember that our mind and brain health depend on healthy, strong thoughts. When we stop learning and thinking deeply, we negatively affect our brain health, building up toxic waste in the brain that can set us up for cognitive decline. So, brain-building helps you with the harder work of detoxing.
Just like not cleaning your teeth will affect your dental health, not learning can damage the brain, setting off a cascade of consequences. You need to keep learning every day for mental health!
The actual process of brain-building is quite rapid. Genes are activated within a few minutes, and a single neuron may gain thousands of new dendritic branches in a very short time. My early researchshowed up to 75 percent improvement in academic, cognitive, social, emotional, and intellectual function when people were taught how to build their brain and harness deep, intellectual thought. When you build your brain, you build your resilience and your intelligence. This changes the way that energy flows through the brain, optimizing its function and cognitive flexibility. Brain-building also uses the thousands of new baby nerve cells that are born when we wake up each morning in a process called neurogenesis.
Some great ways to brain build are:
- Make a list of books you have been meaning to read, and schedule in time to read them!If you are not a big reader, or if your list is really long, you may be interested in the app Blinkist, which teaches you key ideas from thousands of bestselling non-fiction books in a short period of time. (For a free week see https://blinkist.com/drleaf). Audiobooks are also great if you are not a big reader, or if you are doing things around the house like cleaning or exercising. I love Audible, which also offers original audiobooks like Caffeine by Michael Pollan, which I just listened to and highly recommend!
- Listen to podcasts.Some of my favorite ones to listen to are: The Daily, Post Reports, Stuff You Should Know, History Extra Podcast, NPR Life Kit, The TED Interview, Mad in America, and TED Radio Hour.
- Take online courses.Many of these are free, such as those offered by Future Learn and Coursera, and are based on courses offered at Ivy League universities. YouTube also has a great selection of lectures and courses, so check them out!
4. Improving your diet. The one overarching principle I recommend for nutrition to improve memory is to eat real food mindfully, as I discuss in detail in my book Think and Eat Yourself Smart. Essentially, the decisions we make about food and exercise are largely driven by our mind. The effective assimilation of nutrients is dependent on our digestive system, which is also impacted by the mind. The mindset behind the meal is therefore a vital component to any dietary advice for memory!
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