The differences between traumatic memories and non-traumatic memories

When a person’s brain is exposed to overwhelming stressful information all at once, the phenomenon is understood as a potential traumatic situation.

Traumatic experiences

Traumatic experiences are combined with extreme fear. What happens is that all the sensations (smells, noise, colors, sights, etc. ) received during the traumatic situation is locked up in long-term memory fragmented.

Non-traumatic memory

Non-traumatic or explicit memory, on the other hand, is contextual, conscious and to a certain extent, stable.  This type of memory can be re-called or put aside almost at will, can be described, re-worked, and emotions surrounding the memory does not control the person’s here-and-now. The person is able to use this memory to make meaning, learn, make adjustments. This kind of memory is coupled with language and we can talk/write about them.

Traumatic memory

Traumatic memory, on the other hand is quite different.

Memory from traumatic occurrences can become intrusive. Sensory stimulation from sights and sounds trigger the memories. The individual becomes almost unable to put the memories aside. Emotions from the traumatic situations are felt as if the trauma is still occurring. Sometimes these memories trigger flashbacks. The person is rendered helpless against the flood of the memories.

These memories are also fragmented. The person finds it difficult to put the events into a cohesive whole. Some pieces are forgotten, and cannot be recalled.

Often the memories are decoupled from speech. The person can feel and see the memories in the mind, but finds difficulty in putting the contents of it into verbal language.

Patience, empathy and contact

Psychical trauma is injury to the psyche, and sense of the self.  The consequence of trauma renders a person helpless against being  overwhelmed by memories and flashbacks. Therapy with patients of trauma need time, trust and patience.  Combined use of verbal and non-verbal communication makes for effective therapy. Empathic communication with the client relieves  the individual of the isolation of having to live with such events.



Schubbe, O. (2004). Traumatherapie mit EMDR. Order22, 99.

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