“Time heals all wounds” is a cliché. And like many clichés, it sounds plausible even though it’s complicated. The messy reality of those “wounds,” which may result from traumatic events, grief, and heartbreak, is that they can heal over time. They might also heal quickly. Or not at all.
How our brains deal with traumatic events may have more to do with the healing process than time itself. I spoke with psychotherapist Dr. Elizabeth Michas about the healing process and the paradigm shift that memory reconsolidation can represent.
Sometimes the “wounds” part of the “time heals all” cliché is not necessarily the result of trauma. Consider how post-traumatic stress disorder seems to affect some and not others. “A small percentage [of people who’ve experienced a traumatic event], maybe 15 percent, get PTSD,” Michas says.
“Even in the military, we know it isn’t the event [itself that] causes PTSD. It’s how this event gets internally represented as different sensations, emotions, or thoughts—or even the actual memory.”
Michas compared the effort of avoiding trauma to the massive amount of energy required to keep a beach ball underwater in a pool. (Pushing a ball underwater is no easy task.) [Editor’s Note: there’s no pack for “holding a ball underwater” (yet!), but maybe the Stress pack will help.]
So why might one person experience trauma and another not? Research shows that genetics is likely more of a factor than one might expect.
“The brain is creating our experience of everything perceptually, including how our experience is preserved as a memory, and how we respond to it,” says Michas. “Some research shows that how we react to anxiety can be transferred intergenerationally through our DNA. If my ancestors were from a time period where there was a lack of food, my brain may be more primed to seek out resources and making sure I don’t run out of food.”
While Michas says the genetic research is still new, it’s interesting to consider that our reaction to trauma may be partially coded on the cellular level.
While the future of gene manipulation during a single doctor’s visit is still something only a futurist might explore, the relatively new science of memory reconsolidation is here now, and it appears to have positive effects on people who’ve experienced trauma. “Memory reconsolidation speaks to changing things on the neural level, at the synapse. I call what I do ‘brain interventional’ because we’re not changing the [traumatic] event. We’re changing how the brain has been processing it and responding to it,” says Michas.
This is a dramatic shift from how therapy has previously been practiced. “A lot of therapy is based on the catharsis model,” Michas says. “I need you to feel bad about it, grieve, and forgive. But to the brain, that’s just [rehashing] all the pain again. It’s not really working.”
To understand how memory consolidation works, it helps to consider how memory operates: throw out the notion of your memories being static and unchanging. “Every time a memory is activated, either intentionally (if I ask you to think about it) or unintentionally cued by something, it’s open to change,” she says. “[Our memory] is much more like a document we work on in Word. We bring it out, make some revisions, and then hit Save … Every time the memory comes up, there’s potential for it to be reconstructed.” If the power of reconstruction is harnessed in a positive way, healing breakthroughs can be possible.
Michas is currently working on a book called “The Emotional Pain Intervention: Using Neuroscience to Clear Heartbreak”, as heartbreak is one of the more common drivers of PTSD in her clients. It offers a unique window into how the brain springs into action to help us, though it often produces more pain. “When a relationship ends (and it’s no longer beneficial, or possible), often times the brain can’t seem to forget it,” she explains. “It keeps cueing people and turning on these emotion-action systems to try to bring about a reunion that isn’t going to happen.” Emotion-action systems are present in all mammals, and Michas says that when you think about things that have happened, you often respond to it by updating the initial Word document rather than creating a new, more positive version of it. Your brain presses you to take action, but there’s nothing to be done. What memory reconsolidation does is delink the memory from the emotion-action system request.
This means that you can potentially consider a relationship without your brain trying to get you back together with the other person. You might remember a loved one who passed away without grieving as intensely as before. You can be reminded of a traumatic event without having as serious a reaction to it. That’s the transformational change Michas is working toward.
People may continue to suffer from trauma and grief, no matter how much time passes. A memory can cause panic, pain, and grief, and may continue to do so until the person’s brain is convinced that no action needs to be taken. “People don’t have to suffer through traumatic grief,” Michas says. Once the brain receives the message that there isn’t action to take, the brain’s Word document can revise itself in a positive way. One thing can’t change: the traumatic event happened. It will always be in the past. And thanks to neuroscience, we have methods to positively improve the present.