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What do trauma memories feel like?

Experiencing a traumatic event can leave a lasting impact. Trauma memories are intrusive recollections of the traumatic event that can feel very vivid and distressing. Here is an overview of what trauma memories may feel like and why they occur.

Intrusive and Involuntary

A defining feature of trauma memories is that they are involuntary. The memories intrude into your mind when you are not trying to think about the traumatic event. They may come in the form of:

  • Flashbacks – feeling like you are reliving the traumatic event
  • Nightmares
  • Distressing images, sounds, smells or physical sensations associated with the trauma

These involuntary memories can happen suddenly and feel very vivid and real. You may feel like you are re-experiencing the traumatic event in the present moment.


Trauma memories are often triggered by things associated with the traumatic event. Triggers can include:

  • Places
  • Sounds
  • Smells
  • Sensations
  • Weather
  • Conversations
  • Situations
  • Feelings
  • Thoughts
  • Objects

When you encounter a trigger, it can rapidly bring back traumatic memories and make you feel like you are back in the traumatic situation. This trigger response is a result of how trauma memories are encoded in the brain.

Fragmented Memories

Trauma memories are often fragmented and lack a coherent narrative. You may remember vivid sensory details, sights, sounds, smells, without the whole story. Or you may have intense emotions connected to the traumatic event without a complete memory.

This fragmented nature of trauma memories reflects how they are encoded during the trauma. During a highly stressful event, the prefrontal cortex can go “offline”, making it difficult to fully process what is happening. Key details may not get properly encoded in memory.

Detached from Other Memories

Normal memories are connected together in rich networks that are integrated with other life experiences. However, trauma memories tend to be walled off in isolation and disconnection. It is as if the brain is trying to compartmentalize and detach from the traumatic experience.

This disconnected quality contributes to the fragmented nature of trauma memories. The memories lack integration and context within other life events.

Negative Emotions and Physical Reactions

Re-experiencing a trauma memory often involves intense negative emotions like:

  • Fear
  • Horror
  • Helplessness
  • Shame
  • Guilt
  • Anger

Trauma memories can also evoke strong physical reactions like:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Muscle tension
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Headaches

This combination of negative emotions and physical distress contribute to trauma memories being very painful to re-experience.


Because trauma memories are so distressing, they are often avoided. Avoidance may involve:

  • Pushing memories out of awareness
  • Withdrawing from reminders of the trauma
  • Emotional numbing
  • Dissociation

Avoidance can provide temporary relief but prevents processing and integration of the trauma memories. Unresolved trauma memories may then continue to intrude through involuntary recall.

Perceived Threat

Re-experiencing a trauma memory often involves perceiving threat in the present moment. When the memory is triggered, areas of the brain involved in fear and threat detection activate as if the danger is occurring right now.

This makes trauma memories especially vivid and terrifying. The brain and body react as under actual threat, even though the traumatic event is not happening again.

Failures of Memory

In some cases, trauma memories involve gaps or failures of memory storage. You may have no memory for some parts of the traumatic event or aftermath. This is due to neurobiological protective responses during trauma.

Having missing pieces to the trauma memories can make integrating the experience even more difficult. You may have strong emotional and bodily reactions without recalling the full traumatic experience.

Transformation of Memory Over Time

Trauma memories can change and transform over time. Details may become blurred while other parts become more vivid. How the memory makes you feel may evolve as you go through the stages of trauma recovery.

With care, support and therapeutic intervention, trauma memories can become less intrusive and distressing. While they will likely never disappear completely, their emotional charge can diminish as you process and integrate the memories in healthy ways.

Why Trauma Memories Form

Trauma memories form because of how the brain encodes and stores overwhelming experiences. During a highly stressful or terrifying event, several key things happen:

  • The amygdala triggers a fear response
  • Stress hormones like cortisol flood the system
  • The prefrontal cortex may go temporarily offline
  • The hippocampus records intense sensory/emotional information without full contextual details

Together, these brain reactions encode memories that are intense, fragmented, and disconnected from other memories. The way trauma memories become wired in the brain makes them vulnerable to vivid intrusive recollections by triggering stimuli.

Healing Trauma Memories

With care and therapy, it is possible to heal and recover from trauma memories:

  • EMDR therapy can help reprocess distressing memories
  • Exposure therapy helps reduce sensitivity to trauma triggers
  • Somatic therapies resolve trauma stored in the body
  • Building narrative and context around fragmentary memories can help integrate them
  • Therapeutic support provides tools to manage and cope with involuntary recall

While trauma memories may always remain to some degree, their intensity and frequency can be reduced so they no longer dominate your life. As you heal, the memories take on new meaning and perspective.


Trauma memories are involuntarily recalled sensory, emotional and physical experiences of a traumatic event. They are intensely distressing, fragmented, detached from other memories, and stored in isolation. Trauma memories continue to intrude due to the way overwhelming experiences encode in the brain. Therapeutic interventions can help reduce their intensity so they no longer derail life in the present.