Kari A. Gleiser, Ph.D.
Co-Director Center for Integrative Health, Hanover, NH
Working with traumatic memories in a therapeutic context is a complex, yet essential part of the healing process. Trauma survivors who suffer from PTSD and/or dissociative disorders are often haunted by recurrent, intrusive memories that are crucibles of intense emotions – fear, shame, sadness, anger. Such traumatic memories must be accessed, processed and transformed in order to heal from the traumatic experiences. Ignoring traumatic memories in trauma therapy would be akin to a doctor not palpating a broken bone: the therapist wouldn’t be working with the emotional wound.
Since memory retrieval in general is never an entirely reliable process, and is subject to errors of both omission and commission, therapists must be careful not to lead clients in any way, but to allow information to unfold piece by piece from the client. Memory is widely considered to be a reconstructed narrative rather than a factual, snapshot account of an event, and is influenced by a person’s emotional state when the memory was laid down. Because of the stressful and overwhelming emotions associated with traumatic events, and the brain’s natural protective mechanisms, traumatic memories can often be fragmented and hazy. Most survivors question their own memories and abuse at some point in their healing process, and often have histories in which their abuse was denied by caregivers or others in authority. For this reason, therapists cannot assume either a position of doubt, skepticism or denial, nor a position of certainty when it comes to assessing the veracity of a traumatic memory. Therapists may encourage clients to seek external verification of memories when possible, but when the abuse occurred within the family, even this can subject clients to further danger and emotional distress. Therapists are not detectives, judges or jury members and cannot be lured into trying to figure out whether a memory is “real” or not; but must navigate the precarious and fragile balance of supporting healing work when that means working with memories that can never be irrevocably “proven.”