A panic attack is a trauma response that typically occur in response to a certain trigger, like the sight of a person or object that was present during a traumatic moment. Sometimes, though, there may be no apparent explanation for a panic attack or negative shift in mood. It’s a frustrating, potentially scary experience, but not unheard of—you may simply be experiencing a “feeling memory” or “trauma memory” in which the trigger is totally subconscious.
What is a feeling memory?
As Dr. Skip Rizzo, director of medical virtual reality at the Institute for Creative Technologies and a research professor at the University of Southern California, told Lifehacker, a feeling memory is “a perceptual configuration that, even though it’s no threat in the world you’re in, evokes that trigger response.”
Essentially, your brain may associate certain environmental factors with a past traumatic experience. Rizzo provided the example of a veteran who might have a feeling memory while driving down a road lined with trash that subconsciously reminds them of driving down roadways while deployed and being fearful of explosive devices planted in mundane items like garbage bags. The veteran in this hypothetical scenario may not realize the bags on the side of the street are what’s triggering them at all.
In an explainer for Psychology Today, licenced marriage and family therapist Annie Wright gave another example: A woman might feel sick when her even-tempered husband takes his belt off at night, not realizing it’s because she associates that action with physical abuse she witnessed her father commit when she was a child.
When a feeling memory hits, Rizzo said, the response can be similar to what is experienced by people with post-traumatic stress disorder, though having feeling memories does not necessarily mean a person can be diagnosed with PTSD.
Why are feeling memory triggers hard to pinpoint?
If you frequently experiencing intense emotional discomfort but can’t identify what’s triggering it, you should start keeping a detailed record of each event, including where you were and what you were doing when it happened. Consider what you were seeing, smelling, tasting, feeling, and hearing in each incident.
“Certain stimulus patterns evoke that memory at a deep level and sometimes people—when they’re traumatized—dissociate, so they lose an easy cognitive recall of the event,” explained Rizzo.
In her piece, Wright noted that when a threat occurs, either real or perceived, the brain’s frontal lobe can shut down “as a self-protective measure,” while the brainstem and limbic system keep operating normally, so the traumatic experience is stored in the brain “as a set of feeling and somatic responses lacking a cohesive narrative.” Essentially, your body will remember a traumatic event via the sensory details that your conscious brain might not recognize.
What to do if you’re experiencing feeling memories
The good news is that there are treatment options. As a clinical psychologist, Rizzo has been building virtual reality systems for clinical use since 1995. These VR systems can be a tool in prolonged exposure therapy, an evidence-backed treatment that can help patients confront and reprocess difficult emotional memories in a safe environment.
Exposure therapy is a long and arduous process, Rizzo cautioned, and has a high drop-out rate, but is a safe and effective means of treatment. Clinicians control the VR experiences, so they start out, “very minimal in terms of their provocative nature, and then gradually upgrade” to being more provocative, he explained.
As with phobias, exposure therapy can be a great option here, but there are others, too. Rizzo pointed to cognitive processing therapy, which is “less about intensive exposure, but helping a person to review it.” A patient writes or describes the story of their trauma, and a therapist then goes through the story with them to help them recognize and confront dysfunctional thinking. For instance, a victim of assault who blames themselves for what happened is experiencing dysfunctional cognition, which can be a contributing factor to habitual emotional responses (like feeling memories). A therapist utilizing CPT will help that person reframe their cognitions, hopefully preventing the negative emotional responses that come with them.
Whether you think prolonged exposure therapy or CPT is the better option for you, the first step, if feeling memories are impacting your day-to-day life, is to find a therapist and explore your options. Here’s a guide for how to get started.