The Secret Relationship Between Memories and Emotion
Ever wonder why recalling an intense emotional memory can make you start to relive the emotions you were feeling at the time? It turns out there’s more to the relationship between our memories and our feelings than meets the eye. New research suggests that the kind of hormones circulating through your body at the time a new memory is made play a key role in how our brains store those memories and how it feels for us to recall them. Understanding the relationship between our memories, emotions, and trauma is crucial for effective addiction treatment.
Research by cognitive psychologists from Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany and published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology sheds some light on how emotionally intense memories are stored in the brain. Researchers conditioned a fear response in participants by training them to associate one of three shapes with an electric shock. Over the course of three days, researchers found that subjects who were administered the shock after ingesting cortisol, a naturally occurring stress hormone in our bodies, had stronger emotional reactions to the shock-associated stimulus than the control group.
There may be an evolutionary component to enhancing a memory’s intensity with cortisol-encoding. Events intense enough to trigger the body’s release of cortisol will likely be extreme enough to threaten a person’s physical safety and well-being. The researchers hypothesized that the cortisol acts to enhance the individual’s memory of the event as a kind of biological exclamation point, emphasizing the threat so we know to avoid similar situations in the future. Over time, though, the intensity of even the scariest memories should fade to a more neutral, objective recollection.
When memories of intense or even traumatic events continue to be strong even after months have gone by, this could be a warning sign of the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a physiological condition that can occur in anyone who has experienced trauma. Trauma is a subjective experience based on the individual’s perception that they have lost control over their own safety. Trauma can range from a single incident witnessed by a survivor or persistent abuse occurring over a long period of time happening directly to the individual. An estimated 70% of American adults have experienced trauma, with approximately 20% of those people going on to develop some form of post traumatic stress.
Many people trying to overcome addiction have experienced trauma as well as some form of post-traumatic stress. The effects of PTSD combined with the social stigma against seeking out mental health care can drive some individuals to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Access to affordable health care including outpatient mental health services is essential to providing people healthy ways to process and heal from traumatic experiences.
Addiction treatment programs can’t afford to ignore other aspects of an individual’s life that may have led them to use in the first place. Recognizing an individual’s personal history with trauma as well as other concurrent biological needs like nutrition and physical fitness are essential to creating a sustainable, effective addiction treatment and recovery plan. Feeling intense emotion when recalling a traumatic event isn’t a sign of weakness, but of how meaningful that experience truly was for us. Learning to recognize memories that have been stored in conjunction with cortisol can help point us toward the areas of our lives that need our healing care the most.
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