Have you ever seen the movie “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari?” If you have, then you may remember the scene where the protagonist, Francis, is trying to remember something that is hidden in his subconscious. He opens a cupboard door and peers inside, but all he sees are disorganized and chaotic images. This is a perfect illustration of the “linen cupboard metaphor.”
Traumatic memories of any type, including memories related to narcissistic abuse, are processed and stored differently than normal memories.
In this blog post, I will describe the Linen Cupboard Metaphor and how it can be used to explain how traumatic memories can be improperly stored in the brains of people with PTSD/complex PTSD.
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 has been used to describe how traumatic memories can be improperly stored in the brains of people with PTSD or CPTSD. The metaphor describes such memories as being stored rather like items in a disorganized and untidy linen cupboard.
This is a very simplified explanation of how traumatic memories can be stored in the brain. However it does provide us with a good starting point for understanding this complex phenomenon.
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, seahorse-shaped part of the brain that is responsible for memory formation and retrieval. It plays an important role in converting short-term into long-term memories. It is also responsible for “tagging” memories as being either traumatic or non-traumatic.
The hippocampus is very important when it comes to the Linen Cupboard Metaphor. It is responsible for putting traumatic memories into the correct part of the cupboard. If the hippocampus is damaged (as can sometimes happen in cases of PTSD/complex PTSD), then it can no longer do its job properly. This is how traumatic memories may become disorganized and chaotic.
The ability of the hippocampus to put memories in a chronological context is also reduced in extremely stressful or traumatic situations. In other words, when under high levels of stress and arousal, the hippocampus does not timestamp the memory.
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.
This part of the brain processes sensory memories – sound, sight, taste, smell, and touch. When it becomes hyperactive in extremely stressful situations it may encode and store traumatic memories in vivid detail but without the timestamp that is normally created by the hippocampus.
The amygdala is also very important when it comes to the Linen Cupboard Metaphor. It is responsible for flagging traumatic memories as being dangerous. If the amygdala is damaged (as can sometimes happen in cases of PTSD/complex PTSD), then it may not be able to properly identify threatening or fearful memories, and they may not be properly stored in the brain.
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 type of sensory information (sight, sound, taste, smell, touch) that reminds us (either consciously or unconsciously) of the traumatic experience, opens the linen cupboard door wide open and all the memories fall out in a turbulent unprocessed pile of pain and trauma.
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. The memory acts as a flashback, taking the person back to the sights, sounds, smells and other sensory cues they were experienced when they were experiencing the trauma. 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. This should be done with an appropriately qualified and trauma-informed therapist.
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.
For Further Reading
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder – What Is PTSD, Causes, Symptoms and Treatment
- Complex PTSD (CPTSD): Causes, Symptoms and Treatment
- The Linen Cupboard Metaphor – Traumatic Memories and PTSD
- Can You Get PTSD From Narcissistic Abuse? The Toxic Impact of the Narcissist
- PTSD Awareness Month – Everything You Need to Know About PTSD
- PTSD in Men: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment
- Adverse Childhood Experiences and PTSD: What’s the Connection?
- What is a Trauma Trigger and What Does Being “Triggered” Mean?
- Hypervigilance: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment
- 7 Signs Complex Trauma Is Impairing Your Relationship
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