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The Body Keeps the Score: Memory and the Evolving Psychobiology of Posttraumatic Stress

  • Trauma Research Foundation


Ever since people's responses to overwhelming experiences have been systematically explored, researchers have noted that a trauma is stored in somatic memory and expressed as changes in the biological stress response. Intense emotions at the time of the trauma initiate the long-term conditional responses to reminders of the event, which are associated both with chronic alterations in the physiological stress response and with the amnesias and hypermnesias characteristic of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Continued physiological hyperarousal and altered stress hormone secretion affect the ongoing evaluation of sensory stimuli as well. Although memory is ordinarily an active and constructive process, in PTSD failure of declarative memory may lead to organization of the trauma on a somatosensory level (as visual images or physical sensations) that is relatively impervious to change. The inability of people with PTSD to integrate traumatic experiences and their tendency, instead, to continuously relieve the past are mirrored physiologically and hormonally in the misinterpretation of innocuous stimuli as potential threats. Animal research suggests that intense emotional memories are processed outside of the hippocampally mediated memory system and are difficult to extinguish. Cortical activity can inhibit the expression of these subcortically based emotional memories. The effectiveness of this inhibition depends, in part, on physiological arousal and neurohormonal activity. These formulations have implications for both the psychotherapy and the pharmacotherapy of PTSD.
Memory and the evolving psychobiology of post traumatic stress
by Bessel van der Kolk
For more than a century, ever since people's responses to overwhelming experiences were first
systematically explored, it has been noted that the psychological effects of trauma are expressed
as changes in the biological stress response. In 1889, Pierre Janet (1), postulated that intense
emotional reactions make events traumatic by interfering with the integration of the experience into
existing memory schemes. Intense emotions, Janet thought, cause memories of particular events to
be dissociated from consciousness, and to be stored, instead, as visceral sensations (anxiety and
panic), or as visual images (nightmares and flashbacks). Janet also observed that traumatized
patients seemed to react to reminders of the trauma with emergency responses that had been
relevant to the original threat, but that had no bearing on current experience. He noted that victims
had trouble learning from experience: unable to put the trauma behind them, their energies were
absorbed by keeping their emotions under control at the expense of paying attention to current
exigencies. They became fixated upon the past, in some cases by being obsessed with the trauma,
but more often by behaving and feeling like they were traumatized over and over again without
being able to locate the origins of these feelings (2,3).
Bessel A. van der Kolk, MD.
Harvard Medical School
HRI Trauma Center
227 Babcock Street
Boston, MA 02146
The author wishes to thank Rita Fisler, Ed.M. for her editorial assistance.
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Starting with Kardiner(6), and closely followed by Lindemann (8), a vast literature on combat
trauma, crimes, rape, kidnapping, natural disasters, accidents and imprisonment have shown that
the trauma response is bimodal: hypermnesia, hyper-reactivity to stimuli and traumatic
reexperiencing coexist with psychic numbing, avoidance, amnesia and anhedonia (9,10,11,12).
These responses to extreme experiences are so consistent across traumatic stimuli that this
biphasic reaction appears to be the normative response to any overwhelming and uncontrollable
experience. In many people who have undergone severe stress, the post-traumatic response fades
over time, while it persists in others. Much work remains to be done to spell out issues of
resilience and vulnerability, but magnitude of exposure, prior trauma, and social support appear to
be the three most significant predictors for developing chronic PTSD (13,14).
Freud also considered the tendency to stay fixated on the trauma to be biologically based: "After
severe shock.. the dream life continually takes the patient back to the situation of his disaster from
which he awakens with renewed terror.. the patient has undergone a physical fixation to the
trauma"(4). Pavlov's investigations continued the tradition of explaining the effects of trauma as the
result of lasting physiological alterations. He, and others employing his paradigm, coined the term
"defensive reaction" for a cluster of innate reflexive responses to environmental threat (5). Many
studies have shown how the response to potent environmental stimuli (unconditional stimuli-US)
becomes a conditioned reaction. After repeated aversive stimulation, intrinsically non-threatening
cues associated with the trauma (conditional stimuli-CS) become capable of eliciting the defensive
reaction by themselves (conditional response-CR). A rape victim may respond to conditioned
stimuli, such as the approach by an unknown man, as if she were about to be raped again, and
experience panic. Pavlov also pointed out that individual differences in temperament accounted
for the diversity of long term adaptations to trauma.
Abraham Kardiner(6), who first systematically defined posttraumatic stress for American
audiences, noted that sufferers from "traumatic neuroses" develop an enduring vigilance for and
sensitivity to environmental threat, and stated that "the nucleus of the neurosis is a physioneurosis.
This is present on the battlefield and during the entire process of organization; it outlives every
intermediary accommodative device, and persists in the chronic forms. The traumatic syndrome is
ever present and unchanged". In "Men under Stress", Grinker and Spiegel (7) catalogue the
physical symptoms of soldiers in acute posttraumatic states: flexor changes in posture,
hyperkinesis, "violently propulsive gait", tremor at rest, masklike facies, cogwheel rigidity, gastric
distress, urinary incontinence, mutism, and a violent startle reflex. They noted the similarity
between many of these symptoms and those of diseases of the extrapyramidal motor system.
Today we can understand them as the result of stimulation of biological systems, particularly of
ascending amine projections. Contemporary research on the biology of PTSD, generally
uninformed by this earlier research, confirms that there are persistent and profound alterations in
stress hormones secretion and memory processing in people with PTSD.
In an apparent attempt to compensate for chronic hyperarousal, traumatized people seem to shut
down: on a behavioral level, by avoiding stimuli reminiscent of the trauma; on a psychobiological
level, by emotional numbing, which extends to both trauma-related, and everyday experience
(15). Thus, people with chronic PTSD tend to suffer from numbing of responsiveness to the
environment, punctuated by intermittent hyperarousal in response to conditional traumatic stimuli.
However, as Pitman has pointed out (16), in PTSD, the stimuli that precipitate emergency
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Abnormal psychophysiological responses in PTSD have been demonstrated on two different
levels: 1) in response to specific reminders of the trauma and 2) in response to intense, but neutral
stimuli, such as acoustic startle. The first paradigm implies heightened physiological arousal to
sounds, images, and thoughts related to specific traumatic incidents. A large number of studies
have confirmed that traumatized individuals respond to such stimuli with significant conditioned
autonomic reactions, such as heart rate, skin conductance and blood pressure (20,21,22,23,
24,25). The highly elevated physiological responses that accompany the recall of traumatic
experiences that happened years, and sometimes decades before, illustrate the intensity and
timelessness with which traumatic memories continue to affect current experience (3,16). This
phenomenon has generally been understood in the light of Peter Lang's work (26) which shows
that emotionally laden imagery correlates with measurable autonomic responses. Lang has
proposed that emotional memories are stored as "associative networks", that are activated when a
person is confronted with situations that stimulate a sufficient number of elements that make up
these networks. One significant measure of treatment outcome that has become widely accepted
in recent years is a decrease in physiological arousal in response to imagery related to the trauma
(27). However, Shalev et al (28) have shown that desensitization to specific trauma-related
mental images does not necessarily generalize to recollections of other traumatic events, as well.
responses may not be conditional enough: many triggers not directly related to the traumatic
experience may precipitate extreme reactions. Thus, people with PTSD suffer both from
generalized hyperarousal and from physiological emergency reactions to specific reminders(9,10)
The loss of affective modulation that is so central in PTSD mayhelp explain the observation that
traumatized people lose the capacity to utilize affect states as signals (18). Instead of using feelings
as cues to attend to incoming information, in people with PTSD arousal is likely to precipitate
flight or fight reactions (19). Thus, they are prone to go immediately from stimulus to response
without making the necessary psychological assessment of the meaning of what is going on. This
makes them prone to freeze, or, alternatively, to overreact and intimidate others in response to
minor provocations (12,20).
Kolb (29) was the first to propose that excessive stimulation of the CNS at the time of the trauma
may result in permanent neuronal changes that have a negative effect on learning, habituation, and
stimulus discrimination. These neuronal changes would not depend on actual exposure to
reminders of the trauma for expression. The abnormal startle response characteristic of PTSD
(10) exemplifies such neuronal changes.
Despite the fact that an abnormal acoustic startle response (ASR) has been seen as a cardinal
feature of the trauma response for over half a century, systematic explorations of the ASR in
PTSD have just begun. The ASR consists of a characteristic sequence of muscular and autonomic
responses elicited by sudden and intense stimuli (30,31). The neuronal pathways involved consist
of only a small number of mediating synapses between the receptor and effector and a large
projection to brain areas responsible for CNS activation and stimulus evaluation (31). The ASR is
mediated by excitatory amino acids such as glutamate and aspartate and is modulated by a variety
of neurotransmitters and second messengers at both the spinal and supraspinal level (32).
Habituation of the ASR in normals occurs after 3 to 5 presentations (30).
Several studies have demonstrated abnormalities in habituation to the ASR in PTSD
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Post Traumatic Stress Disorder develops following exposure to events that are intensely
distressing. Intense stress is accompanied by the release of endogenous, stress-responsive
neurohormones, such as cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine (NE), vasopressin, oxytocin and
endogenous opioids. These stress hormones help the organism mobilize the required energy to
deal with the stress, ranging from increased glucose release to enhanced immune function. In a
well-functioning organism, stress produces rapid and pronounced hormonal responses. However,
chronic and persistent stress inhibits the effectiveness of the stress response and induces
desensitization (37).
(33,34,35,36). Shalev et al (33) found a failure to habituate both to CNS and ANS-mediated
responses to ASR in 93% of the PTSD group, compared with 22% of the control subjects.
Interestingly, people who previously met criteria for PTSD, but no longer do so now, continue to
show failure of habituation of the ASR (van der Kolk et al, unpublished data; Pitman et al,
unpublished data), which raises the question whether abnormal habituation to acoustic startle is a
marker of, or a vulnerability factor for developing PTSD.
The failure to habituate to acoustic startle suggests that traumatized people have difficulty
evaluating sensory stimuli, and mobilizing appropriate levels of physiological arousal(30). Thus, the
inability of people with PTSD to properly integrate memories of the trauma and, instead, to get
mired in a continuous reliving of the past, is mirrored physiologically in the misinterpretation of
innocuous stimuli, such as the ASR, as potential threats.
Much still remains to be learned about the specific roles of the different neurohormones in the
stress response. NE is secreted by the Locus Coeruleus(LC) and distributed through much of the
CNS, particularly the neocortex and the limbic system, where it plays a role in memory
consolidation and helps initiate fight/ flight behaviors. Adrenocorticotropin (ACTH) is released
from the anterior pituitary, and activates a cascade of reactions, eventuating in release of
glucocorticoids from the adrenals. The precise interrelation between Hypothalamic-Pituitary-
Adrenal (HPA) Axis hormones and the catecholamines in the stress response is not entirely clear,
but it is known that stressors that activate NE neurons also increase CRF concentrations in the
LC (38), while intracerebral ventricular infusion of CRF increases NE in the forebrain (39).
Glucocorticoids and catecholamines may modulate each other's effects: in acute stress, cortisol
helps regulate stress hormone release via a negative feedback loop to the hippocampus,
hypothalamus and pituitary (40) and there is evidence that corticosteroids normalize
catecholamine-induced arousal in limbic midbrain structures in response to stress (41). Thus, the
simultaneous activation of corticosteroids and catecholamines could stimulate active coping
behaviors, while increased arousal in the presence of low glucocorticoid levels may promote
undifferentiated fight or flight reactions (42).
While acute stress activates the HPA axis and increases glucocorticoid levels, organisms adapt to
chronic stress by activating a negative feedback loop that results in 1) decreased resting
glucocorticoid levels in chronically stressed organisms, (43), 2) decreased glucocorticoid
secretion in response to subsequent stress (42), and 3) increased concentration of glucocorticoid
receptors in the hippocampus (44). Yehuda has suggested that increased concentration of
glucocorticoid receptors could facilitate a stronger glucocorticoid negative feedback, resulting in a
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Since there is an extensive animal literature on the effects of inescapable stress on the biological
stress response of other species, such as monkeys and rats, much of the biological research on
people with PTSD has focussed on testing the applicability of those research findings to people
with PTSD (46,47). People with PTSD, like chronically and inescapbly shocked animals, seem to
suffer from a persistent activation of the biological stress response upon exposure to stimuli
reminiscent of the trauma.
more sensitive HPA axis and a faster recovery from acute stress (45).
Chronic exposure to stress affects both acute and chronic adaptation: it permanently alters how an
organism deals with its environment on a day-to-day basis, and it interferes with how it copes with
subsequent acute stress (45).
------------TABLE 1, PARTS 1 & 2 ABOUT HERE------------
Neuroendocrine studies of Vietnam veterans with PTSD have found good
evidence for chronically increased sympathetic nervous system activity in PTSD. One study (48)
found elevated 24h excretions of urinary NE and epinephrine in PTSD combat veterans
compared with patients with other psychiatric diagnoses. While Pitman & Orr (49) did not
replicate these findings in 20 veterans and 15 combat controls, the mean urinary NE excretion
values in their combat controls (58.0 ug/day) were substantially higher than those previously
reported in normal populations. The expected compensatory downregulation of adrenergic
receptors in response to increased levels of norepinephrine was confirmed by a study that found
decreased platelet alpha-2 adrenergic receptors in combat veterans with PTSD, compared with
normal controls (50). Another study also found an abnormally low alpha-2 adrenergic receptor-
mediated adenylate cyclase signal transduction (51). In a recent study Southwick et al (52) used
yohimbine injections (0.4 mg/kg), which activate noradrenergic neurons by blocking the alpha-2
auto- receptor, to study noradrenergic neuronal dysregulation in Vietnam veterans with PTSD.
Yohimbine precipitated panic attacks in 70% of subjects and flashbacks in 40%. Subjects
responded with larger increases in plasma MHPG than controls. Yohimbine precipitated
significant increases in all PTSD symptoms.
1) Catecholamines.
Two studies have shown that veterans with PTSD have low urinary cortisol
excretion, even when they have comorbid major depressive disorder (42,53). One study failed to
replicate this finding (49). In a series of studies, Yehuda et al (42,54) found increased numbers of
lymphocyte glucocorticoid receptors in Vietnam veterans with PTSD. Interestingly, the number of
glucocorticoid receptors was proportional to the severity of PTSD symptoms. Yehuda (54) also
has reported the results of an unpublished study by Heidi Resnick, in which acute cortisol
response to trauma was studied from blood samples from 20 acute rape victims. Three months
later, a prior trauma history was taken, and the subjects were evaluated for the presence of
PTSD. Victims with a prior history of sexual abuse were significantly more likely to have
developed PTSD three months following the rape than rape victims who did not develop PTSD.
Cortisol levels shortly after the rape were correlated with histories of prior assaults: the mean
initial cortisol level of individuals with a prior assault history was 15 ug/dl compared to 30 ug/dl in
individuals without. These findings can be interpreted to mean either that prior exposure to
traumatic events result in a blunted cortisol response to subsequent trauma, or in a quicker return
2) Corticosteroids.
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When young animals are isolated, and older ones attacked, they respond initially with aggression
(hyperarousal- fight- protest), and, if that does not produce the required results, with withdrawal
(numbing-flight-despair). Fear-induced attack or protest patterns in the young serve to attract
protection, and in mature animals to prevent or counteract the predator's activity. During external
attacks pain-inhibition is a useful defensive capacity, because attention to pain would interfere with
of cortisol to baseline following stress. The fact that Yehuda et al (45) also found subjects with
PTSD to be hyperresponsive to low doses of dexamethasone argues for an enhanced sensitivity
of the HPA feedback in traumatized patients.
While the role of serotonin in PTSD has not been systematically investigated, both
the fact that inescapably shocked animals develop decreased CNS serotonin levels (55), and that
serotonin re-uptake blockers are effective pharmacological agents in the treatment of PTSD,
justify a brief consideration of the potential role of this neurotransmitter in PTSD. Decreased
serotonin in humans has repeatedly been correlated with impulsivity and aggression (56,57,58).
The literature tends to readily assume that these relationships are based on genetic traits.
However, studies of impulsive, aggressive and suicidal patients seem to find at least as robust an
association between those behaviors and histories of childhood trauma (e.g. 59,60,61). It is likely
that both temperament and experience affect relative CNS serotonin levels (12).
3) Serotonin.
Low serotonin in animals is also related to an inability to modulate arousal, as exemplified by an
exaggerated startle (62,63), and increased arousal in response to novel stimuli, handling, or pain
(63). The behavioral effects of serotonin depletion on animals is characterized by hyperirritability,
hyperexitability, and hypersensitivity, and an "...exaggerated emotional arousal and/or aggressive
display, to relatively mild stimuli" (63). These behaviors bear a striking resemblance to the
phenomenology of PTSD in humans. Furthermore, serotonin re-uptake inhibitors have been found
to be the most effective pharmacological treatment of both obsessive thinking in people with OCD
(64), and of involuntary preoccupation with traumatic memories in people with PTSD (65,66). It
is likely that serotonin plays a role in the capacity to monitor the environment flexibly and to
respond with behaviors that are situation-appropriate, rather than reacting to internal stimuli that
are irrelevant to current demands.
Stress induced analgesia (SIA) has been described in experimental
animals following a variety of inescapable stressors such as electric shock, fighting, starvation and
cold water swim (67). In severely stressed animals, opiate withdrawal symptoms can be
produced both by termination of the stressful stimulus or by naloxone injections. Stimulated by the
findings that fear activates the secretion of endogenous opioid peptides, and that SIA can become
conditioned to subsequent stressors and to previously neutral events associated with the noxious
stimulus, we tested the hypothesis that in people with PTSD, re-exposure to a stimulus resembling
the original trauma will cause an endogenous opioid response that can be indirectly measured as
naloxone reversible analgesia (68,69). We found that two decades after the original trauma,
people with PTSD developed opioid-mediated analgesia in response to a stimulus resembling the
traumatic stressor, which we correlated with a secretion of endogenous opioids equivalent to 8
mg of morphine. Self-reports of emotional responses suggested that endogenous opioids were
responsible for a relative blunting of the emotional response to the traumatic stimulus.
4). Endogenous opioids.
Endogenous opiates and Stress Induced Analgesia:
Possible implications for affective function.
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effective defense: grooming or licking wounds may attract opponents and stimulate further attack
(70). Thus defensive and pain-motivated behaviors are mutually inhibitory. Stress-induced
analgesia protects organisms against feeling pain while engaged in defensive activities. As early as
1946, Beecher (71), after observing that 75% of severely wounded soldiers on the Italian front
did not request morphine, speculated that "strong emotions can block pain". Today, we can
reasonably assume that this is due to the release of endogenous opioids(68,69).
While most studies on PTSD have been done on adults, particularly on war veterans, in recent
years a small prospective literature is emerging that documents the differential effects of trauma at
various age levels. Anxiety disorders, chronic hyperarousal, and behavioral disturbances have
been regularly described in traumatized children (e.g.72,73,74). In addition to the reactions to
discrete, one time, traumatic incidents documented in these studies, intrafamilial abuse is
increasingly recognized to produce complex post-traumatic syndromes (75), which involve
chronic affect dysregulation, destructive behavior against self and others, learning disablities,
dissociative problems, somatization, and distortions in concepts about self and others (76,77).
The Field Trials for DSM IV showed that these this conglomeration of symptoms tended to occur
together and that the severity of this syndrome was proportional to the age of onset of the trauma
and its duration (78).
One hundred years ago, Pierre Janet (1) suggested that the most fundamental of mental activities
is the storage and categorization of incoming sensations into memory, and the retrieval of those
Endogenous opioids, which inhibit pain and reduce panic, are secreted after prolonged exposure
to severe stress. Siegfried et al (70) have observed that memory is impaired in animals when they
can no longer actively influence the outcome of a threatening situation. They showed that both the
freeze response and panic interfere with effective memory processing: excessive endogenous
opioids and NE both interfere with the storage of experience in explicit memory. Freeze/numbing
responses may serve the function of allowing organisms to not "consciously experience" or not to
remember situations of overwhelming stress (and which thus will also keep them from learning
from experience). We have proposed that the dissociative reactions in people in response to
trauma may be analogous to this complex of behaviors that occur in animals after prolonged
exposure to severe uncontrollable stress (68).
While current research on traumatized children is outside the scope of this review, it is important
to recognize that a range of neurobiological abnormalities are beginning to be identified in this
population. Frank Putnam's prospective, but as yet unpublished, studies (personal
communications, 1991,1992,1993) are showing major neuroendocrine disturbances in sexually
abused girls compared with normals. Research on the psychobiology of childhood trauma can be
profitably informed by the vast literature on the psychobiological effects of trauma and deprivation
in non-human primates (12,79).
TRAUMA AND MEMORY: The flexibility of memory
and the engraving of trauma
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memories under appropriate circumstances. He, like contemporary memory researchers,
understood that what is now called semantic, or declarative, memory is an active and constructive
process and that remembering depends on existing mental schemata (3,80): once an event or a
particular bit of information is integrated into existing mental schemes, it will no longer be
accessible as a separate, immutable entity, but be distorted both by prior experience, and by the
emotional state at the time of recall(3). PTSD, by definition, is accompanied by memory
disturbances, consisting of both hypermnesias and amnesias (9,10). Research into the nature of
traumatic memories (3) indicates that trauma interferes with delarative memory, i.e. conscious
recall of experience, but does not inhibit implicit, or non-declarative memory, the memory system
that controls conditioned emotional responses, skills and habits, and sensorimotor sensations
related to experience. There now is enough information available about the biology of memory
storage and retrieval to start building coherent hypotheses regarding the underlying
psychobiological processes involved in these memory disturbances (3,16,17,25).
Research has shown that, under ordinary conditions, many traumatized people, including rape
victims (84), battered women (85) and abused children (86) have a fairly good psychosocial
adjustment. However, they do not respond to stress the way other people do. Under pressure,
they may feel, or act as if they were traumatized all over again. Thus, high states of arousal seem
to selectively promote retrieval of traumatic memories, sensory information, or behaviors
associated with prior traumatic experiences (9,10). The tendency of traumatized organisms to
revert to irrelevant emergency behaviors in response to minor stress has been well documented in
animals, as well. Studies at the Wisconsin primate laboratory have shown that rhesus monkeys
with histories of severe early maternal deprivation display marked withdrawal or aggression in
response to emotional or physical stimuli (such as exposure to loud noises, or the administration of
amphetamines), even after a long period of good social adjustment (87). In experiments with
mice, Mitchell and his colleagues (88) found that the relative degree of arousal interacts with prior
exposure to high stress to determine how an animal will react to novel stimuli. In a state of low
arousal, animals tend to be curious and seek novelty. During high arousal, they are frightened,
avoid novelty, and perseverate in familiar behavior, regardless of the outcome. Under ordinary
circumstances, an animal will choose the most pleasant of two alternatives. When hyperaroused, it
will seek whatever is familiar, regardless of the intrinsic rewards. Thus, animals who have been
locked in a box in which they were exposed to electric shocks and then released return to those
In the beginning of this century Janet already noted that: "certain happenings ... leave indelible and
distressing memories-- memories to which the sufferer continually returns, and by which he is
tormented by day and by night" (81). Clinicians and researchers dealing with traumatized patients
have repeatedly made the observation that the sensory experiences and visual images related to
the trauma seem not to fade over time, and appear to be less subject to distortion than ordinary
experiences (1,49,82). When people are traumatized, they are said to experience "speechless
terror": the emotional impact of the event may interfere with the capacity to capture the experience
in words or symbols. Piaget (83) thought that under such circumstances, failure of semantic
memory leads to the organization of memory on a somatosensory or iconic level (such as somatic
sensations, behavioral enactments, nightmares and flashbacks). He pointed out: "It is precisely
because there is no immediate accommodation that there is complete dissociation of the inner
activity from the external world. As the external world is solely represented by images, it is
assimilated without resistance (i.e. unattached to other memories) to the unconscious ego".
Traumatic memories are state dependent.
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boxes when they are subsequently stressed. Mitchell concluded that this perseveration is
nonassociative, i.e. uncoupled from the usual reward systems.
When people are under severe stress, they secrete endogenous stress hormones that affect the
strength of memory consolidation. Based on animal models it has been widely assumed (3,46,94)
that massive secretion of neurohormones at the time of the trauma plays a role in the long term
potentiation (LTP) (and thus, the over- consolidation) of traumatic memories. Mammals seem
equipped with memory storage mechanisms that ordinarily modulate the strength of memory
consolidation according to the strength of the accompanying hormonal stimulation (95,96). This
capacity helps the organism evaluate the importance of subsequent sensory input according to the
relative strength of associated memory traces. This phenomenon appears to be largely mediated
by NE input to the amygdala (97,98, figure 2). In traumatized organisms, the capacity to access
relevant memories appears to have gone awry: they become overconditioned to access memory
traces of the trauma and to "remember" the trauma whenever aroused. While norepinephrine
(NE) seems to be the principal hormone involved in producing LTP, other neurohormones
secreted under particular stressful circumstances, such as endorphins and oxytocin, actually inhibit
memory consolidation (99).
In people, analogous phenomena have been documented: memories (somatic or symbolic) related
to the trauma are elicited by heightened arousal (89). Information acquired in an aroused, or
otherwise altered state of mind is retrieved more readily when people are brought back to that
particular state of mind (90,91). State dependent memory retrieval may also be involved in
dissociative phenomena in which traumatized persons may be wholly or partially amnestic for
memories or behaviors enacted while in altered states of mind (2,3,92).
Contemporary biological researchers have shown that medications that stimulate autonomic
arousal may precipitate visual images and affect states associated with prior traumatic experiences
in people with PTSD, but not in controls. In patients with PTSD the injection of drugs such as
lactate (93) and yohimbine (52) tends to precipitate panic attacks, flashbacks (exact reliving
experiences) of earlier trauma, or both. In our own laboratory, approximately 20% of PTSD
subjects responded with a flashback of a traumatic experience when they were presented with
acoustic startle stimuli.
Trauma, neurohormones and memory consolidation.
The role of NE in memory consolidation has been shown to have an inverted U-shaped function
(95,96): both very low and very high levels of CNS NE activity interfere with memory storage.
Excessive NE release at the time of the trauma, as well as the release of other neurohormones,
such as endogenous opioids, oxytocin and vasopressin, are likely to play a role in creating the
hypermnesias and the amnesias that are a quintessential part of PTSD (9,10). It is of interest that
childbirth, which can be extraordinarily stressful, almost never seems to result in post traumatic
problems (100). Oxytocin may play a protective role that prevents the overconsolidation of
memories surrounding childbirth.
Physiological arousal in general can trigger trauma-related memories, while, conversely, trauma-
related memories precipitate generalized physiological arousal. It is likely that the frequent re-living
of a traumatic event in flashbacks or nightmares cause a re-release of stress hormones which
further kindle the strength of the memory trace (46). Such a positive feedback loop could cause
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The limbic system is thought to be the part of the CNS that maintains and guides the emotions and
behavior necessary for self-preservation and survival of the species (101), and that is critically
involved in the storage and retrieval of memory. During both waking and sleeping states signals
from the sensory organs continuously travel to the thalamus whence they are distributed to the
cortex (setting up a "stream of thought"), to the basal ganglia (setting up a "stream of movement")
and to the limbic system where they set up a "stream of emotions"(102), that determine the
emotional significance of the sensory input. It appears that most processing of sensory input
occurs outside of conscious awareness, and only novel, significant or threatening information is
selectively passed on to the neocortex for further attention. Since people with PTSD appear to
over-interpret sensory input as a recurrence of past trauma and since recent studies have
suggested limbic system abnormalities in brain imaging studies of traumatized patients (103,104),
a review of the psychobiology of trauma would be incomplete without considering the role of the
limbic system in PTSD (also see 105). Two particular areas of the limbic system have been
implicated in the processing of emotionally charged memories: the amygdala and the hippocampus
(Table 2).
subclinical PTSD to escalate into clinical PTSD (16), in which the strength of the memories
appear so deeply engraved that Pitman and Orr (17) have called it "the Black Hole" in the mental
life of the PTSD patient, that attracts all associations to it, and saps current life of its significance.
Of all areas in the CNS, the amygdala is most clearly implicated in the evaluation
of the emotional meaning of incoming stimuli (106). Several investigators have proposed that the
amygdala assigns free-floating feelings of significance to sensory input, which the neocortex then
further elaborates and imbues with personal meaning (101,106,107,108). Moreover, it is thought
to integrate internal representations of the external world in the form of memory images with
emotional experiences associated with those memories (80). After assigning meaning to sensory
information, the amygdala guides emotional behavior by projections to the hypothalamus,
hippocampus and basal forebrain (106,107,109).
The amygdala.
which anatomically is adjacent to the amygdala, is thought to
record in memory the spatial and temporal dimensions of experience and to play an important role
in the categorization and storage of incoming stimuli in memory. Proper functioning of the
hippocampus is necessary for explicit or declarative memory (109). The hippocampus is thought
to be involved in the evaluation of spatially and temporally unrelated events, comparing them with
previously stored information and determining whether and how they are associated with each
other, with reward, punishment, novelty or non-reward (107,110). The hippocampus is also
implicated in playing a role in the inhibition of exploratory behavior and in obsessional thinking,
while hippocampal damage is associated with hyper-responsiveness to environmental stimuli
The septo-hippocampal system,
The slow maturation of the hippocampus, which is not fully myelinated till after the third or fourth
year of life, is seen as the cause of infantile amnesia (113,114). In contrast, it is thought that the
memory system that subserves the affective quality of experience (roughly speaking procedural, or
"taxon" memory) matures earlier and is less subject to disruption by stress (112).
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In animals, high level stimulation of the amygdala interferes with hippocampal functioning (107,
109). This implies that intense affect may inhibit proper evaluation and categorization of
experience. In mature animals one-time intense stimulation of the amygdala will produce lasting
changes in neuronal excitability and enduring behavioral changes in the direction of either fight or
flight (118). In kindling experiments with animals, Adamec et al (119) have shown that, following
growth in amplitude of amygdala and hippocampal seizure activity, permanent changes in limbic
physiology cause a lasting changes in defensiveness and in predatory aggression. Pre-existing
"personality" played a significant role in the behavioral effects of amygdala stimulation in cats:
animals that are temperamentally insensitive to threat and prone to attack tend become more
aggressive, while in highly defensive animals different pathways were activated, increasing
behavioral inhibition (119).
As the CNS matures, memory storage shifts from primarily sensorimotor (motoric action) and
perceptual representations (iconic), to symbolic and linguistic modes of organization of mental
experience (83). With maturation, there is an increasing ability to categorize experience, and link it
with existing mental schemes. However, even as the organism matures, this capacity, and with it,
the hippocampal localization system, remains vulnerable to disruption (45,107,110,115,116). A
variety of external and internal stimuli, such as stress induced corticosterone production (117),
decreases hippocampal activity. However, even when stress interferes with hippocampally
mediated memory storage and categorization, it is likely that some mental representation of the
experience is laid down by means of a system that records affective experience, but that has no
capacity for symbolic processing and placement in space and time (figure 2).
Decreased hippocampal functioning causes behavioral disinhibition, possibly by stimulating
incoming stimuli to be interpreted in the direction of "emergency" (fight/flight) responses. The
neurotransmitter serotonin plays a crucial role in the capacity of the septo-hippocampal system to
activate inhibitory pathways that prevent the initiation of emergency responses until it is clear that
they will be of use (110). This observation made us very interested in a possible role for
serotonergic agents in the treatment of PTSD.
"Emotional memories are forever".
In a series of experiments, LeDoux has utilized repeated electrical stimulation of the amygdala to
produce conditioned fear responses. He found that cortical lesions prevent their extinction. This
led him to conclude that, once formed, the subcortical traces of the conditioned fear response are
indelible, and that "emotional memory may be forever" (118). In 1987, Lawrence Kolb (29)
postulated that patients with PTSD suffer from impaired cortical control over subcortical areas
responsible for learning, habituation, and stimulus discrimination. The concept of indelible
subcortical emotional responses, held in check to varying degrees by cortical and septo-
hippocampal activity, has led to the speculation that delayed onset PTSD may be the expression
of subcortically mediated emotional responses that escape cortical, and possibly hippocampal,
inhibitory control (3,16,94,120,121).
----- FIGURE 2 (effects of emotional arousal) ABOUT HERE --------
Decreased inhibitory control may occur under a variety of circumstances: under the influence of
drugs and alcohol, during sleep (as nightmares), with aging, and after exposure to strong
reminders of the traumatic past. It is conceivable that traumatic memories then could emerge, not
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The goal of treatment of PTSD is to help people live in the present, without feeling or behaving
according to irrelevant demands belonging to the past. Psychologically, this means that traumatic
experiences need to be located in time and place and distinguished from current reality. However,
hyperarousal, intrusive reliving, numbing and dissociation get in the way of separating current
reality from past trauma. Hence, medications that affect these PTSD symptoms are often essential
for patients to begin to achieve a sense of safety and perspective from which to approach their
tasks. While numerous articles have been written about the drug treatment of PTSD, to date, only
134 people with PTSD have been enrolledin published double blind studies. Most of these have
been Vietnamcombat veterans. Unfortunately, up until recently, only medications which seem to
be of limited therapeutic usefulness have beenthesubject of adequate scientific scrutiny. While the
only published double blind studies of medications in the treatment of PTSDhave been tricyclic
antidepressants and MAO Inhibitors (122,123,124), it is sometimes assumed that they therefore
also are themosteffective. Three double-blind trials of tricyclic antidepressants have been
published (122,124,125), two of which demonstrated modest improvement in PTSD symptoms.
While positive resultshave been claimed for numerous other medications in case reportsand open
studies, at the present time there are no data aboutwhich patient and which PTSD symptom will
predictably respond toanyof them. Success has been claimed for just about every class
ofpsychoactive medication, including benzodiazepines (127), tricyclic antidepressants (122,125),
monamine oxidase inhibitors (122,129) lithium carbonate (127), beta adrenergic blockers and
clonidine (130), carbamezapine (131) and antipsychotic agents. The accumulated clinical
experience seems to indicate that understanding thebasic neurobiology of arousal and appraisal is
the most useful guideinselecting medications for people with PTSD (124,125). Autonomic arousal
can be reduced at different levels in the CNS: throughinhibition of locus coeruleus noradrenergic
activity with clonidine and the beta adrenergic blockers (130,132), or by increasing the inhibitory
effect of the gaba-ergic system with gaba- ergicagonists (the benzodiazepines). During the past
two years a numberof case reports and open clinical trials of fluoxetine were followedby our
double blind study of 64 PTSD subjects with fluoxetine (65). Unlike the tricyclic antidepressants,
which were effective on either the intrusive (imipramine) or numbing (amitryptiline) symptoms of
PTSD, fluoxetine proved to be effective forthewhole spectrum of PTSD symptoms. It also acted
more rapidly thanthetricyclics. The fact that fluoxetine has proven to be such aneffective treatment
for PTSD supports a larger role of the serotonergic system in PTSD (66). Rorschach tests
adminstered by blindscorers revealed that subjects on fluoxetine became able to takedistance
from the emotional impact of incoming stimuli and to becomeable to utilize cognition to harness the
emotional responses tounstructured visual stimuli (van der Kolk et al, unpublished).
in the distorted fashion of ordinary recall, but as affect states, somatic sensations or as visual
images (nightmares [81] or flashbacks [52]) that are timeless and unmodified by further
While the subjects improved clinically, their startle habituation got worse (van der Kolk et al,
unpublished). The 5-HT1a agonist buspirone shows some promise in facilitating habituation (133)
and thus may play a useful adjunctive role in the pharmaco- therapy of PTSD. Even newer
research has suggested abnormalities of the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor and of
glutamate in PTSD (134), opening up potential new avenues for the psychopharmacological
treatment of PTSD.
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7/8/03 2:50 PMTrauma Information Pages, Articles: van der Kolk (1994)
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... The ages and stages of development during which trauma is experienced impacts how and where in the body trauma is stored, thus the criteria for what constitutes "trauma" is an evolving concept (van der Kolk, 1994). Practitioners may refer to the 5 th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) for understanding how PTSD may manifest for children under age 5, to include unique outward or internalized behaviors and beliefs. ...
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The prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences, and recent increase in stress during the COVID-19 crisis necessitates the practice of trauma-informed care in counseling. When addressing ethical concerns that emerge during counseling, attention to the principles of trauma-informed care is of critical importance. The purpose of this conceptual piece is to propose a Trauma-informed Ethical Decision-making Model that integrates trauma-informed standards (SAMHSA, 2014), with the proposed Principles of Trauma-informed Practice, and Kitchener and Anderson’s (2011) ethical decision-making model. This Trauma-informed Ethical Decision-making Model may provide counselors, particularly counselors-in-training, with a framework for addressing ethical concerns with client survivors of trauma. The framework may also provide counselor educators with a framework to support the development of curriculum regarding trauma-informed practice and ethical decision-making.
... Research on embodiment should also guide what populations we build for. Research shows that developing bodily awareness is a key part of healing from PTSD, while feelings of disembodiment are core disruptive post-traumatic symptoms [25]. Many researchers are currently building VR experiences for PTSD exposure therapy, and should work alongside the scholars of embodied trauma or risk accidentally create more disembodiment in vulnerable populations [18] [19]. ...
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Headworn Virtual Reality technologies which engage the eyes and ears to transport the user to a new reality are, by definition, disembodied: They take the mind somewhere the body cannot follow. This creates two schisms simultaneously: first, the head is separated from the body; second, the senses of sight and hearing are incongruent with touch, interoception, thermoception, smell, taste, and more. A cohesive sense of self relies on cohesive sensory signals, our learning and memory rely on the body, and disembodiment is dangerous. This paper argues that the contradictory sensory modalities and disembodiment which are inherent to today's VR tech create active risk of desensitization, disso-ciation and withdrawal. We look to recent research in the neuroscience of embodied cognition, and research from the VR community, to make the case for a research agenda which addresses the cognitive impacts of disembodiment and prioritizes VR which builds with the body in mind.
... It is well-known that dissociation affects and is affected by memory. According to the dissociative encoding hypothesis, peritraumatic dissociation (occurring at the time of trauma) affects the encoding of trauma-related experiences leading to a general increase in physical symptoms and somatization [59,60]. It is assumed that a failure to integrate sensory memory traces into declarative memory may leave (implicit) body memories intact [38] causing, for example, intrusive flashbacks (see Section 2.1 above) or fragmentary recall of memories. ...
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Bodily experiences such as the feeling of touch, pain or inner signals of the body are deeply emotional and activate brain networks that mediate their perception and higher-order processing. While the ad hoc perception of bodily signals and their influence on behavior is empirically well studied, there is a knowledge gap on how we store and retrieve bodily experiences that we perceived in the past, and how this influences our everyday life. Here, we explore the hypothesis that negative body memories, that is, negative bodily experiences of the past that are stored in memory and influence behavior, contribute to the development of somatic manifestations of mental health problems including somatic symptoms, traumatic re-experiences or dissociative symptoms. By combining knowledge from the areas of cognitive neuroscience and clinical neuroscience with insights from psychotherapy, we identify Clinical Body Memory (CBM) mechanisms that specify how mental health problems could be driven by corporeal experiences stored in memory. The major argument is that the investigation of the neuronal mechanisms that underlie the storage and retrieval of body memories provides us with empirical access to reduce the negative impact of body memories on mental health.
Chronic pelvic pain (CPP) is highly prevalent among women and the condition is poorly understood. In addition to multiple symptoms from the pelvis, CPP patients frequently suffer bodily distress like musculoskeletal pain and negative emotional, behavioral, and sexual implications. This paper is based on a qualitative study including semi-structured interviews with eight women with CPP. Our project has been conducted within the framework of phenomenology, particularly shaped by the concept of embodiment. We discuss the link between the lived body and CPP and address the value of making the life experiences of the patient relevant to understand this complex condition.
The author describes how the parasitic coronavirus encircled and disrupted the analytic frame and situation, activating anxiety in both therapist and patient. A patient is described with core intimacy difficulties whose primitive anxieties manifested in him the dis-regulation of the too-far (agoraphobic), too-near (claustrophobic) intimacy dialectic. Drawing on Winnicott, the author describes how these increased dialectic tensions, when contained, created a potentially transformational transitional space that helped to enhance the patient's mental and symbolizing capacity, that is, a capacity to make more from less.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a widely used evidence-based treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The mental processes underlying both PTSD and EMDR treatment effects are often explained by drawing on processes that involve the automatic formation and change of mental associations. Recent evidence that contrasts with these explanations is discussed and a new perspective to PTSD and EMDR treatment effects is proposed that draws on automatic inferential processes and can be readily integrated with the dominant (Adaptive Information Processing) model. This new perspective incorporates insights from cognitive theories that draw on predictive processing and goal-directed processes to elucidate (changes in) automatic inferences that underlie PTSD symptoms and EMDR treatment effects. Recommendations for clinical practice are provided based on this new perspective.
This paper presents a case study that discusses the lived experiences of two LGBTIQA+ young people who have been in out-of-home care in Australia, focusing particularly on the influence of relationships on their developing sexual identity. Utilising a secure base theoretical perspective, we argue that how young people experience support, care and safety may depend on the relational context in which it is received, and that warm, loving relationships may be just as significant for the development of positive gender and sexual identities as explicit support for identity formation. The findings from the two narratives provide an argument in favour of the secure base model to support young LGBTIQA+ people in out-of-home care.
This paper introduces nature therapy and single session therapy as alternative psychotherapeutic frameworks in addition to more traditional ways of working, offering a modern perspective on evolving societal and individual needs. In particular, the concern for human coping mechanisms and survival in today’s fast paced environment dictates a growing need to address conflicts of inner and outer lived experiences, dissociation, and trauma, where traditional settings are failing or inadequate. Ethical considerations and applications for working outside in nature are discussed, as well as limitations for traditional settings. This paper can be used as an introductory guide for practitioners seeking to work therapeutically in nature.
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In the laboratory rat and guinea pig, glucocorticoids (GCs), the adrenal steroids that are secreted during stress, can damage the hippocampus and exacerbate the hippocampal damage induced by various neurological insults. An open question is whether GCs have similar deleterious effects in the primate hippocampus. In fact, we showed that sustained and fatal stress was associated with preferential hippocampal damage in the vervet monkey; however, it was not possible to determine whether the excessive GC secretion that accompanied such stress was the damaging agent. The present study examines this possibility. Pellets of cortisol (the principal GC of primates) were stereotaxically implanted into hippocampi of 4 vervet monkeys; contralateral hippocampi were implanted with cholesterol pellets as a control. One year later at postmortem, preferential damage occurred in the cortisol-implanted side. In the cholesterol side, mild cell layer irregularity was noted in 2 of 4 cases. By contrast in the cortisol-exposed hippocampi, all cases had at least 2 of the following neuropathologic markers: cell layer irregularity, dendritic atrophy, soma shrinkage and condensation, or nuclear pyknosis. Damage was severe in some cases, and was restricted to the CA3/CA2 cellfield. This anatomical distribution of damage, and the cellular features of the damage agree with that observed in instances of GC-induced toxicity in the rodent hippocampus, and of stress-induced toxicity in the primate hippocampus. These observations suggest that sustained GC exposure (whether due to stress, Cushings syndrome or exogenous administration) might damage the human hippocampus.
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The title of this book—infant memory—appears straightforward. On reflection, however, it becomes apparent that the term memory applies to many different facets of an organism’s ability to conserve and utilize the effects of its experiences. The multiple senses in which memory can be, and has been, used range from what Piaget and Inhelder (1973) labeled “memory in the wide sense,” including acquisition of skills, vocabulary, and adaptive responses, to what they labeled “memory in the strict sense”— the ability to consciously reflect on a specific incident in one’s personal past. Few would deny that it is possible to use the term memory in the foregoing manners. What are the consequences for the study of infant memory?
Neuroendocrine studies examining the hypothalamic-pituitar3'-adrenal (HPA) axis under baseline conditions and in response to neuroendocrine challenges have supported the hypothesis of altered HPA functioning in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, to date, there is much debate concerning the nature of HPA changes in PTSD. Furthermore , in studies showing parallel findings in PTSD and major depressive disorder there is controversy regarding whether the HPA alterations suggest a specific pathophysiolog'y of PTSD, or, rather, reflect comorbid major depressive disorder. This review summarizes findings of HPA axis dysfunction in both PTSD and major depressive disorder, and shows distinct patterns of HPA changes, which are probably due to db~'erent mechanisms of action for cortisol and its regulatory factors.