Written on June 27, 2022
If you’re a burn survivor, you’ve probably played back your story over and over again. The moments right before and after, the calls for help, the early days of recovery. Maybe some events are still blurry for you, even years later. Perhaps there are some gaps in what you can remember, or memories come back to you all of a sudden when you least expect it.
Trauma plays a pivotal role in the way the brain interprets and processes memory. As you seek treatment and support, it is important to learn how trauma shows up in your own life so you can get the tools you need to find peace and healing.
Every burn survivor’s journey is unique, yet for most, that journey began with trauma. While no two people experience trauma in exactly the same way, understanding how trauma begins and how it functions in our daily lives can pave the path toward healing.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “trauma results from an event ... that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”
Many burn survivors may relate to this concept of trauma. Trauma that arises from a burn injury is not isolated to a singular moment, either. Quite the opposite is true. Recovery from a burn lasts far longer than the initial period of shock and emergency response. The treatment and recovery process can be long and winding, impacting both physical and emotional well-being. Learning how trauma shows up in your own life can help you recognize it, manage it, and mitigate its impact along your healing journey.
If you’ve experienced a burn injury, you know firsthand the litany of emotions that often follow: shock, fear, loss, grief, and sadness. When it comes to trauma, actions and emotions are often so intense that they’re difficult to process or even recognize. Some burn survivors may at first deny they’ve experienced any trauma at all. Others experience dissociative amnesia or repressed memories that take months if not years to recognize and accept. In some cases, trauma blocks out memory recall altogether.
In fact, researchers have conducted extensive studies about the correlation between trauma and memory loss. Not all memories are created equal. Some of our memories are factually accurate and link back to specific life events, but others become distorted. That’s because these memories are associated with such intense bouts of emotion, as is the case with trauma, as Deryn Strange and Melanie K. T. Takarangi explained.
Traumatic incidents cause tremendous short-term and long-term stress. If you were to look at a map of the brain during this period of stress, you’d see the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex light up. As stress takes over, these parts of the brain lose their ability to perform other regular functions. As you might have guessed, one of these functions is memory recall. The four types of memory outlined below are those most regularly impacted after a traumatic episode has occurred.
Semantic memory is the recall of general knowledge. When you’ve experienced trauma, you may have trouble remembering the words, images, or sounds that typically form a semantic memory.
Episodic memory is typically the who, what, and where of an experience, including the order of events. Trauma can interrupt episodic memories and fragment the order of events.
Emotional memories can stick with a person long after the initial trauma has occurred. You may experience painful memories associated with your trauma long after it occurred, often without warning or context.
Procedural memory refers to regular tasks a person performs without actively thinking about the steps involved—like riding a bicycle or brushing your teeth. But for someone who has experienced trauma, it’s not always that easy. Trauma can confuse or change how we process routine behavior.
Memory loss and trauma can feel overwhelming, but you don’t have to go it alone. Aside from physical healing with the assistance of your burn team, you can also support your own healing through knowledge, movement, and community engagement.
Knowledge is power as you navigate your burn treatment and recovery. At Phoenix Society, we’ve gathered the resources you’ll need along your journey. Reclaim your power after trauma and arrive at the new normal that feels right for you.
Trauma and memory aren’t limited to your mental state; both are housed in the body, too. Getting active can release tension and help you mitigate stress as you work toward recovery.
Whether you’re new to the healing journey or years into the process, your recovery is your own—but you don’t have to carry it alone. At Phoenix Society, you have a community of fellow burn survivors ready to welcome and support you.
View our community calendar for upcoming opportunities to connect with people like you and resources that can help.