Trauma and its effects on mental health can be difficult to conceptualize, but understanding how the brain processes memories associated with traumatic events is essential for proper treatment and support. One oft-used metaphor that can help us understand this process is the “linen cupboard.”
This is a powerful image that explains how any type of sensory information can open up memories associated with trauma in vivid detail. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at why this happens and what it means for people struggling with PTSD or CPTSD.
How memories are organised in the brain
Normal memories that have been fully processed have a “timestamp” that enables us to sort out when they happened chronologically.
This timestamp is attached to information about the event.
This includes images, sounds, things we touched, tasted or smelled.
Once the memory is process and integrated, it is stored and properly archived in long-term memory.
You can imagine the memories as neatly folded towels stored in a linen cupboard.
We are able to retrieve this fully-processed memory from our conscious memory whenever we need it.
Most importantly, however, is the fact that since the memory is timestamped, whenever we remember it we are very much aware that it happened in the past.
Traumatic memories, on the other hand, are not processed in the same way as normal memories.
They are typically “flagged” as being traumatic, and they can be stored in different parts of the brain that are not accessible to our conscious memory.
This is why people with PTSD/complex PTSD may often have fragmented or dissociated memories of their traumatic experiences.
The Linen Cupboard Metaphor
The Linen Cupboard Metaphor is often used to provide a visual representation of how traumatic memories may be stored in the brains of people with PTSD or CPTSD.
It paints an image of a disorganized and untidy linen cupboard where items have been scattered haphazardly, rather than neatly stored away.
This powerful metaphor implies that accessing these memories can be more challenging than it should be, making it difficult for those affected to process and make sense of their traumatic experiences.
The Linen Cupboard Metaphor is a simplified way of explaining the complex experience of how traumatic memories can be stored in the brain.
It gives us a launching point to better comprehend the intricacies of this phenomenon, and allows us to gain further insight into how PTSD and CPTSD can affect our lives.
To explore this metaphor further, we need to take a look at the different parts of the brain that are involved in processing and storing memories.
The hippocampus and traumatic memories
The hippocampus is a small but important part of the brain that plays an integral role in memory formation and retrieval.
It is responsible for encoding experiences into memories that can be stored and recalled later, as well as “tagging” those memories for efficient storage and future retrieval.
The hippocampus plays an important role in putting memories into a chronological context, but this ability is significantly reduced in times of extreme stress or trauma.
For instance, when a person experiences high levels of stress and emotional arousal, their hippocampus can fail to timestamp the memory accurately.
This means that rather than encoding the experience into a linear sequence – as it would under normal circumstances – it instead stores the traumatic event in an untidy and disorganized manner, similar to how items are stored in a very disorganized linen cupboard.
Understanding how this works can help us to further appreciate why PTSD and CPTSD can have such severe impacts on people’s lives.
The amygdala and traumatic memories
The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped part of the brain that is responsible for emotional responses.
It is activated when we encounter something that is threatening or fearful, and it helps to trigger the “fight or flight” response.
This means that it becomes more active under the circumstances of extreme stress that constitute traumatic experiences.
The amygdala processes sensory memories, such as sight, sound, taste, smell and touch.
During extremely stressful or traumatic situations, this part of the brain can become overactive and cause memories to be stored without the usual timestamp created by the hippocampus.
As a result, these memories are encoded in vivid detail, but without any sense of temporal order.
The Linen Cupboard Metaphor – Putting it all together
So, what does this mean for people with PTSD/complex PTSD? Well, it means that their traumatic memories are often stored in a way that is not accessible to their conscious memory.
The memories are still there, they just may not be accessible to the person’s conscious mind.
This can result in them having fragmented or dissociated memories of their traumatic experiences.
It also means that it can be very difficult for them to make sense of these memories.
Returning to the linen cupboard metaphor.
Any sensory information that triggers memories of a traumatic experience can open the proverbial door, and cause a flood of memories associated with the trauma to fall out in a disorganized pile.
For people dealing with PTSD or CPTSD, this can be an overwhelming and painful experience as these memories come flooding back all at once with no order or structure.
What makes the experience even scarier is the fact that since the memories are not timestamped, the person experiences them as though they were happening in the present moment.
They get to relive the trauma over and over again, whenever a sight or a sound or a smell unconsciously opens the cupboard.
This is why it can be so difficult for people with PTSD/complex PTSD to deal with their memories.
They are constantly being bombarded by sensory reminders of their traumatic experiences.
The Linen Cupboard Metaphor – You must sort out your memories
Extending the metaphor, if the person does not sort out the linen cupboard then it will remain in the same disarray it was in before.
The next time the door is opened, the same thing will happen.
The only solution is to sort out the cupboard.
The memories need to be gently taken out, examined, and reorganized.
Then they need to be put back in the correct part of the cupboard.
This is a metaphor for bringing memories into conscious awareness without attempting to avoid or banish them.
Once processed, the memories will be stored and integrated into the proper part of the brain in the same way as “normal” memories.
The traumatic memories will be integrated into one’s life narrative so they become accessible in a less psychologically distressing manner.
They will no longer need to be desperately avoided, denied, or repressed.
It is of course important to remember that the Linen Cupboard Metaphor is just that – a metaphor. It does not provide us with a complete picture of how traumatic memories are stored in the brain.
However, it can help understand some of the complexities involved in this process.