Why do some memories of distant events seem like ages ago and others seem like yesterday? Consultant Clinical Psychologist GRAHAM FAWCETT explores…
In counselling sessions, we often ask people ‘how long ago does an event feel?’. It helps us understand the nature of their memory.
For example, ordinarily we can be aware of an early memory, but sense that the event happened long ago. At other times, an event that happened long ago can feel much more recent. And in some forms of trauma, a past event can feel like it is re-occurring, now.
Why is this?
There are many ways in which a memory is ‘laid down’ in our minds. Mostly, this happens within a context – a time, a season, an event. We might recall that someone made a joke, or that it was summer, or that it was cold. The memories are then kept alive when we recall them or are reminded of them. And if we don’t access them, they fade. These kinds of memories are experienced as more or less distant in time and place.
But our experience of time can sometimes feel paradoxical.
For example, in a refugee camp, time can drag. And yet the events that brought the refugee to the camp can seem recent, ‘like yesterday’. These ‘liminal’ spaces – times where we are at the threshold of a transition that has yet to begin – can create a sense of a constant present, a recent past and a distant (yet potentially immediate) future. And this can cause psychological pain. For example, if ‘next week’ is utterly uncertain, then hoping or planning to do anything becomes futile, which leads to a sense of despair.
“The one aspect of space-time that we can gain a sense of control over is ‘now’ and ‘here’.”
For people who have experienced a life-threatening event, the memories that are created at the time are built in a way that may be available to our conscious mind, or may be laid down elsewhere, typically in our body or as memory fragments. If unprocessed, these memories can become problematic for some people, not least because the neural network that acts quickly to gather the memories has no place or time stamp. When recalled, these memories are therefore experienced as current events, as if they are happening all over again.
Another form of trauma memory are those maintained by constant repetition and rehearsal of the event. People may constantly go back to the event asking questions such as ‘why me?’, ‘what if?’, ‘if only?’, to which there may be no answers and so the questioning continues. The memory is kept alive and can feel paradoxically recent, yet also distant.
Within therapy we use a range of approaches to help people whose experience of the future or the past has become problematic. The one aspect of space-time that we can gain a sense of control over is ‘now’ and ‘here’.
And so back to the ‘how long ago does it feel?’ question.
In counselling I sometimes ask five questions, often repeatedly, and invite the client to continue asking the questions outside of our session: How long ago does it feel? How long ago was it really? Where did it happen? Where are you now? Is ‘here’ safe? These questions help the threat system contextualise the troubling memories in a time that is not ‘now’ and a place that is not ‘here’, which adds a further layer that ‘here’ and ‘now’ is safe.
Much attention in therapy is rightly given to ‘grounding’ people in the space they are in (e.g. feeling the chair, the floor, the temperature). But it also seems highly beneficial to ground people in time as well, both as a contrast to the troubling times they recall or fear, and as a way of being present to the present time. With practice, this results in a readily accessible sense of safety or of control that is reassuring and calming.
Time and memory is complicated. If you’d like to explore this further as an individual or in a group, then do get in touch with us.