Photographic Memory and Trauma: 4 Ways to Support a Traumatized Friend, Client or Patient

“If you erase all the mistakes of your past, you would also erase all of the wisdom of your present. Remember the lesson, not the disappointment.”- Unknown

When it comes to photographic memory and trauma, let’s talk about 4 ways to support a traumatized client or patient to help them get from past to present. Of course, there are many methods to support those with trauma, but these are just 4 of my observations from research and experiential knowledge.* By the way, have you had experience helping an individual who is dealing with a photographic memory and trauma (visual, auditory or both)? Has this presented challenges for you (and/or your client) as a coach, counselor or doctor? If so, could you let me know about your knowledge in the comments?

Years ago, I witnessed a shocking over-reaction from a shopper in a clothing store. I was with my mother as we were browsing for some new clothes. There was a customer in the store who had a dog with him. As I was admiring the cute dog, a middle-aged couple entered the store and told the cashier that dogs should not be allowed in the store. This is an understandable request, indeed.

What happened next shocked me and my mother to the core!

The cashier must have told the couple something provoking. The man started yelling at the cashier and stormed out of the store shaking his fist with no shortage of aggressive “F-Bombs”. It was a peculiar sight to see.

The reaction did not match the situation, or so I thought, in my limited knowledge.

We found it rather peculiar, and I was shaking. I was tempted to judge a person I did not know or understand.

Later, I thought, could it be that this couple had a previous traumatic experience with a dog? Or, perhaps a child of theirs had a traumatic allergic reaction to a dog at some point? Could it be that the man had a photographic memory and a traumatic childhood experience popped up vividly in the front of his mind?

Clearly, it appeared as an over-reaction, but what I know now is that overreactions often point to unresolved and/or present traumas.

THIS IS HOW WE CAN BE BETTER FRIENDS, COACHES AND THERAPISTS.

First, provide and encourage social support. Social support helps with feelings of safety, integration and grounding in the present. When we don’t recognize trauma for what it is, we can end up depriving the traumatized individual of the social support and compassion they need to heal. I think it is safe to say that most people don’t understand trauma when they are experiencing it themselves or when they see it in others. As a result, they could end up isolated and marginalized. They could stigmatize others.

Individuals with photographic memory can end up feeling lonely. There is a downside to having such a sharp memory: prolonged trauma recovery and more frequent triggers. Forgetting is a blessing. People who remember everything are carrying around baggage, and they are often misunderstood.

Social support has a polyvagal correlate. In other words, we need the connection, intimacy and trust of relationships, especially when going through something traumatic. With Polyvagal Theory (a theory created by Stephen Porges, PhD), we can better recognize and observe trauma’s impact on the nervous system.

Here’s an example. Let’s say we go to the zoo with our friends. A friend has a panic attack when he sees a tiger and becomes shaky and bursts into tears. Instead of assuming that someone is just an “angry person” or a “fearful person” or that they “just need to chill the hell out” we need to acknowledge in our minds that there are deeper issues that call for compassion and more thought. There are complex issues behind anger, and for that reason, we should avoid judgment. The last thing a traumatized person needs is to be pushed into more shame.

We view people like icebergs – we only see the tip and not what is underneath.

Avoid cliches like “Get over it” or “Just let it go.” Another hollow remark is “This too shall pass.” These “little gems” may be wrapped with good intentions, but they lack empathy and can feel isolating, dismissive and unsupportive. Validating the traumatized feeling is the way to go. When in doubt, just be present and validate the feeling. If a traumatized person could press a button to “snap out of it”, they would. It doesn’t work like that.

Second, remind them of self-awareness about their own nervous systems. This normalization can be very freeing. Did you know that a lot of traumatized individuals become traumatized by their own trauma response? Yep. It’s like a downward spiral. A lose-lose situation. If we don’t understand how our own nervous systems function in fight or flight, it can be altogether more traumatizing. We can judge ourselves for our physical and emotional reactions, the same ones that our nervous systems have decided to use to protect us from harm.

This drives us deeper into trauma, shame and guilt! Totally counterproductive!

It’s important for us to realize with self-compassion that we don’t choose trauma or our trauma responses. Who would? We can tell this to our clients. Experiencing trauma is not a moral failure or character flaw. The nervous system takes over when it sees a trigger. We wouldn’t have to tell it to fight or flee if we had a deep fear of tigers.

If you got attacked by a tiger when you were young, and saw a tiger ten years later at the zoo, your nervous system could amp up beyond your control.

A trauma response is a normal reaction to an abnormal experience or a reminder of an abnormal experience of the past.

Unfortunately, trauma and shame often go together. Sadly, traumatized individuals start to feel shame for their trauma and their ensuing trauma responses. It is usually misplaced shame because behind trauma lies a number of problems: Inequality, oppression, injustice, unsafe environments, abuse…the list goes on.

There is no cookie-cutter way to have a trauma response. Some people sweat or shake when they see a tiger. Others scream and run. Others fight. Others shut down. Others don’t care at all. We all react differently based on our unique pasts. Our reactions have survival advantages; it’s the way we are wired as humans. Don’t judge your own reactions or those of other people. Trauma is not a sign of weakness.

We need to show compassion to those we coach and educate them on how trauma is impacting their nervous systems. Knowledge, self-compassion and self-awareness is power.

Third, help them to focus on the present. People who experience photographic memory and trauma have brains which are literally stuck in a past time/experience. They do not choose to be in their past, though. The time-keeping parts of the brain are literally on hold. It can feel impossible to be “in the moment.” A photographic memory which doesn’t forget anything adds to the frustration. Be careful to avoid thoughtless cliches like “forget the past” because they can be counterproductive and downright frustrating, especially to someone with a photographic memory and trauma or complex trauma who has movie clips in their minds of nearly everything traumatic he or she has experienced! No traumatized person actually wants to remember or stay in the past!

Emotional and psychological trauma is just as frustrating of a healing process as a traumatic injury.

So often, when we are traumatized, we obsess about the past dreadful experience, loss or disappointment. This too is out of our control. We suffer from dysregulation. Not every traumatizing experience has a lesson attached, but some might. What helps is to focus on the lesson in the present (if there is a lesson) and what to do with that knowledge in the future. Also, a focus on present tasks, distractions and environment can help.

Please note! For some traumatized people, focusing on present feelings or sensations does not help at all. Telling someone “Don’t think about that tiger, think of the present instead” can backfire. That person is going to think about a tiger! “Mindfulness” is all the craze these days, but sometimes it makes things worse. Experientially, I have found that distraction and a future focus is helpful.

Fourth, encourage them to get going and move! Ask them this question: “If you were feeling ‘normal’ and happy, what action would you do that you don’t feel like doing right now?” Would you take a walk? Would you go play basketball? Paint a picture? Sometimes we don’t think we want to do something. However, behaviors (actions) can lead to changed thoughts.

Repetitive motions seem to be the best when it comes to trauma help. Walking, running, eliptical, dancing, swimming, bouncing a ball…really anything that will get the blood and oxygen flowing (of course, they need to check with their doctor before starting any new workout routine). This can be broken up into two or three shorter sessions totaling about 30 to 45 minutes per day.

To conclude, help your client or loved one with photographic memory and trauma by doing the following:

  1. Provide and encourage social support.
  2. Remind them of self-awareness about their own nervous systems.
  3. Help them to focus on the present or use distraction.
  4. Encourage them to move.

*I am not a government-licensed medical professional/psychologist. If you have become a harmful threat to yourself, to others or to those in your care, there are licensed professionals who want to help. Please seek professional help and/or call 911 if you are so traumatized that you are a threat to yourself or others. Please read my disclaimer.

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