Reappearance of Distant Memories of Emotionally Taxing Life Experiences
Memory can be difficult to understand. On the one hand, recent short-term memory is frequently affected by distraction, preoccupation, and aging. On the other hand, distant long-term memories often remain clear and precise well into old age. It’s as if there are two separate brain regions for memory storage - one for recent memories and a another for long term memories.
Memories from emotionally powerful life experiences typically shift from recent to long-term memory storage over the passage of time. As stated above, these long term memories remain extremely clear and precise. It's as if they were captured on the highest quality of movie film. Importantly, it is not just traumatic memories that are ao preserved, extremely pleasurable memories are also similarly jpreserved. Therefore, it’s the intensity of emotional arousal, rather than positive or negative qualities of the life events, that appears to promote highly detailed stored memories.
Portions of distant, emotionally powerful life experiences, can be replayed in a person’s dreams following the occurence of recent, and unrelated, stressful life events. This dreaming progresively diminishes as the recent life stresses are faced and managed.
Psychologists at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, Oregon, reported long term follow -up of amnesty-granted immigrants who terribly abused in Cambodia. Memories and dreams of their life-threatening experiences before coming to America gradually diminished over their first years in this country. However, when New York City suffered the ravenges of the 9/11 attacks, many of these patients came into the clinic and reported once again dreaming of the life stresses they experienced prior to leaving their country of origen.
Very pleasurable life experiences can also return to one's thoughts and dreams upon voluntary efforts to recall them or when coming across provocative mementos. These pleasant memories were frequently "called to consciousness" by Americans held captive for several years as political prisioners.
The recurrence of unpleasant and even threatening memories of stressful early life experiences can be expressed to mental health practitioners treating patients recovering from a current life crisis. A mistake can be made when a therapist assumes that by focusing attention on these early stresses the patient’s current life anxieties will resolve.
I have worked for the past 10 years at three Veterans Affairs Mental Health Clinics where I've treated veterans from World War II up to those from present day military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. A good number of the aged veterans have reported a return of early life (often combat related) stressful military memories. They are frequently told that this indicates they are suffering from chronic PTSD. After obtaining a full history from these patients, I frequently find that they are in the midst of several very disturbing recent life stresses - such as loss of employment, a difficult residential move, a major illness of a spouse, the death of a close friend, and severe financial problems. Once they start working on adaptation to these current life problems, I see their early military stressful memories and dreams recede. This is not the clinical picture of patients truly suffering from chronic PTSD.