Being held captive by the past through your own memories is a horrible existence. Whether you are constantly reliving events through flashbacks or simply haunted by occurrences from long ago, they can impede your health and happiness. Memories can repeatedly traumatise the survivor of a horrendous event and can be the cause of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
Psychiatrists, therapists, and counselors work to help patients suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome by reducing the amount of influence memories have on their current situation. If the memories can be put into their proper context so they are simply reminders of the past, then a survivor is able to accept that the events remembered aren’t happening today and this increases their sense of well-being.
Conventional means of doing this currently involve varying methods of processing the memories and desensitizing the survivor to the depicted events. One of the newer and more successful means employed is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, better known as E.M.D.R..
In E.M.D.R., a client is asked to visualize a memory and place themselves in it. On a scale of one to ten, they then define how upset this memory makes them feel, what emotions they are experiencing, and where the emotions physically manifest in their body. A light hypnotic type trance is then induced, either utilizing rapid eye movement, an alternating pulse in the palms of the hands, or an alternating tone in the ears.
It usually depends on the individual client as to what is the most effective method, as different people respond better to different stimuli. Once the patient has settled into the memory, the doctor then talks them through the memory, having them tell the story as it is happening to them.
The theory is that instead of simply reliving the event and re-experiencing the trauma, the controlled situation allows them to step away from participating so they can begin to deal with the emotions generated by the circumstances. For example, people who have survived a situation where others died will often feel guilty because they survived and aren’t able to break free from those moments until they have dealt with the emotion.
The trauma won’t be forgotten, but it won’t be constantly re-lived, either. The person can get on with their life and live without the dominant negative emotions the flashbacks invoked. While E.M.D.R. does involve working directly with the memory, it does not utilize desensitization to the extent of other forms of therapy. Some literally have the patient relive the moment over and over again until they no longer feel the same initial intensity.
The client will make a tape recording of their voice, recounting what happened, and this will be utilized for the desensitizing process. This tape will be played repeatedly to the client during their sessions with the doctor until it loses all meaning to them. It is hoped that on some level or another, the client will cease to be affected by the trauma because it will no longer have the same level of impact.
The human memory is an amazingly complex system that serves more than just the obvious purpose of letting us remember what to pick up at the grocery store. Memory and pain receptors share the same neurological paths in our brain, allowing the body to learn how to keep itself safe.
One of the more obvious examples of this is the child and the hot burner on a stove. A child touches the hot element of the stove, his hand tells him it hurts, his brain remembers the pain, and the next time the child goes to do the same thing, he remembers the pain and will stop himself.
This connection between memory and pain is also responsible for the condition known as phantom limb. A person who has had a limb amputated will swear they can still feel their toes or their fingers even though it may have been years after the surgery or accident that caused the loss of limb. The memory of it being there is imbedded so deeply that the mind is unable to forget its former presence.
Memory plays a role in other learned, but unconscious behaviours like breathing and other involuntary body systems. Some Alzheimer patients, or dementia sufferers of one kind or another, have died because they have literally forgotten how to breathe or swallow. (My father choked to death on his saliva in his sleep because he forgot how to use those muscles.)
With memory affecting so many different aspects of the body and its functions, you’d think it would be the last place you’d want to start messing around, but somebody has come up with the bright idea of utilizing a pill to do the same work on flashbacks that existing therapies already do.
Researchers at McGill University in Montreal Canada have begun human trials utilizing the beta blocker propranolol, currently in use for treating high blood pressure, as a means of dampening an emotional reaction to an event. Patients were asked to write out their stories of trauma and were then given either the propranolol or a placebo.
It had already been discovered that administering the drug to patients who have recently experienced a trauma interferes with the transfer of memories from the part of the brain where they are experienced, the hippocampus, to that area where they are stored to come back as flashbacks, the cerebral cortex. What wasn’t known was whether patients who had experienced a trauma years ago would receive the same benefits as those newly traumatised.
Since people who suffer from flashbacks relive the memory completely, the test cases who wrote their experiences out began to re-experience the emotional traumas all over again. In other words they had recreated a circumstance within themselves that closely matched those of a recently traumatised patient and should therefore be able to benefit from an immediate administration of the drug.
A week later the patients were called back to listen to a reading of their scripts. They were all monitored for anxiety symptoms. An overall twenty percent reduction was noted and their trauma level was less elevated then the group who had taken the placebo.
This group is considered too small a sampling to provide an indication of how successful the treatment is, but the doctors involved feel it is sufficient evidence to encourage them to keep investigating.
The doctors freely admit they have no idea what amount of risk the patients face in the dampening of other memories. Will happy memories be affected or will it just be the memory that is foremost in the mind at the time the script is being written?
It’s obvious a person can’t just take the drug and the emotional impact of their bad memories will decrease. They have to be in a controlled situation where they are administered the drug while at the height of the emotional experience for it to have any effect at all.
At first blush, this sounds like it might be something useful. It’s not doing anything like erasing memories, just easing their emotional impact. But I can see two problems, one obvious and one that has more to do with long term treatment implications for a patient.
The obvious hesitation is that nobody can have any idea what other affects this drug, utilized in this manner, could be having on the memory. If a patient only experiences minor improvement the first time and elects to continue the drug therapy, what will the cumulative effect on the memory be?
Everybody is so different when it comes to our emotional and psychological makeup that it could be almost impossible to make a generalized prediction on how people will react to it. There would be no way to guarantee there won’t be contradictions for those taking the drug.
Aside from these concerns, there is the problem of the steps it omits from a patient’s recovery process, especially for those patients whose trauma was such that it has caused deep-seated emotional problems and behavioural abnormalities. An essential part of dealing with these memories is coming to an understanding of how they have impacted one’s present day behaviour.
I have been undergoing E.M.D.R. therapy for the past year or so in an effort to mitigate the damages of extensive childhood sexual abuse. Each time my therapist and I have dealt with a specific memory or flashback, the process of working through it has uncovered clues to why I am a certain way or where behaviours come from.
By understanding these ways of being are reactions to events in the past, I have learnt to recognize they are no longer appropriate to my situation and can safely discard them. As long as I was experiencing the memories of being raped, part of me would still believe that I still needed to act like those were my circumstances. It has only been by working through the memories that I have been able to change that mindset.
If at some point a patient is just given this drug to diminish the memories but does nothing to process the information, they are only doing half the work required for a full recovery. You won’t know how these memories have affected your day-to-day existence if you just walk away from them. You are still the same person who was experiencing the flashbacks and really no further ahead then before you took the drug.
There are no shortcuts to mental and emotional health. I worry that a pill like this will tempt people into believing they will be able to solve all the problems caused by traumas in their past just by taking it once or twice. This is an unrealistic and false expectation (and hope) to be giving people.