Reliving trauma, relieving pain: An ESRC Better Lives Essay

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Alessandro Massazza, a PhD student in the Department of Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology, at University College London has received money from the Economic and Social Research Council to research the psychiatric consequences of complex emergencies. In this shortlisted essay from the ESRC Better Lives Writing Competition, in which PhD students who have received money from the ESRC write short essays about how their research leads too better lives, he explores how the double-edged sword of memory affects us after a traumatic event.

As a person living with my head in the clouds most of the time, I often need to double-check if I have really shut my front door, or – more worryingly for my flatmates – turned off the gas stove. People generally complain about the precariousness and inaccuracy of their memories. We forget where we parked our car yesterday evening, or the answer to a question during an exam. Some people, however, can experience the opposite problem. Rather than not remembering well enough, they remember too well.

Individuals that have survived traumatic events can experience intrusive memories. These are vivid, highly sensory, detailed memories of certain parts of the trauma that repetitively pop up in their minds uncontrollably. When experiencing such memories, people can feel as if they are reliving the traumatic event again in the here and now.

Alessandro Massazza

This can be a truly terrifying experience and cause a devastating amount of distress. Such memories can have a powerful grip on the lives of survivors, leading to a blurring of the trauma into everyday life, the past collapsing into the present.

The reasons behind the development of such memories are complex, but research suggests they are the result of how memory is formed during times of high arousal. More intense emotions are generally thought to result in more vivid and long-lasting memories. If I asked you what you were doing on the 13th of January 2017, most of you would struggle to remember much from that day, unless something very special happened. However, if I asked you what you were doing on the 11th of September 2001 when the Twin Towers collapsed, many of you would remember a lot more – from where you were when you witnessed the scene, to whom you were with and so on. On a more positive note, many of you might also have vivid memories of your first kiss, your wedding, or the first time you saw your child.

The reason why events that score high on emotionality tend to be remembered better makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. You want to remember clearly where you found that tree with delicious fruits, just as much as you want to remember clearly where that very hungry tiger lives.

My research focuses specifically on the mechanisms that lie behind the development of intrusive memories. In particular, I am interested in why certain moments of a traumatic event become intrusive memories while other moments from the same trauma do not. My hypothesis is that the particular feelings, thoughts and behaviours experienced during different moments of the trauma might be key in uncovering this. Indeed, preliminary results from my research with disaster survivors suggest that the moments of the trauma that become intrusive memories are those where participants report higher levels of panic, distress, dissociation and helplessness.

Reducing such feelings, thoughts, and behaviours during the trauma may therefore provide a key opportunity to prevent the development of intrusive memories. Specific training might be devised to teach techniques for reducing dissociation or panic among people that are likely to be exposed to trauma, such as soldiers and firefighters.

Another potential application is that of reducing such feelings, thoughts, and behaviours immediately after traumatic exposure. For example, nurses and doctors might be trained in techniques aimed at reducing feelings of helplessness and distress among patients arriving at A&E following potentially traumatic events such as terrorist attacks.

Memory is a fundamental aspect of how we define ourselves and our lives. As humans we have been gifted with the extraordinary capacity to travel in time, through our memories of the past. Most of us receive deep comfort from remembering that first embrace with our partner, our parents taking care of us, and smells, sounds and sights from childhood. We are naturally nostalgic creatures that spend much of our waking life wandering in our memory libraries for recollections that give us joy and meaning. We cherish our memories so much that the prospect of losing them due to illnesses such as dementia is terrifying to most of us. As societies we cling to memories through museums and monuments. As individuals we treasure important moments in photographs on our bedside table. In a world where we are increasingly aware of the depth of mental and social suffering resulting from wars, disasters, and displacement, an improved understanding of the mechanisms behind traumatic memory is crucial. The aim of our research is not to have people forget their trauma or erase their memories in the pursuit of the ‘spotless mind’ of the ‘world forgot’ described by Alexander Pope. On the contrary, our hope is that of providing people with the ability to own their memories, rather than their memories owning them, and allowing survivors that have gone through suffering in the past to lead better lives in the future.

Shortlisted and winning essays in the series:



  • Notes on a G-string | Rosie Cowan, Queen’s University Belfast
  • Better lives with better toilets | Ian Ross, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

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