Must We Process All Traumatic Memories to Heal from DID?
Do we need to remember and process all traumatic memories in order to heal from dissociative identity disorder (DID)? When it comes to the complicated disorder of DID, there frequently are more questions than there are answers, and the explanation of the above question is no less difficult. Before I provide an answer, it is important to understand the way our emotional traumatic memories work and what it actually means to process and heal from them.
To begin with, DID is mostly caused by long-term and repetitive early childhood trauma. As children, we were not able to physically escape the abuse, so we dissociated, split off in our head and compartmentalized the traumatic memories and emotions. This coping strategy created amnesic barriers to the traumatic events. As a result, in order to engage in our daily lives, the emotional memories were disconnected from our conscious selves.
Understanding what causes DID leads us back to the question: In order to heal, must we remember and process all traumatic memories? With that in mind, what if someone does not have memories of his or her trauma? Is that individual able to heal without remembering?
How Emotionally Traumatic Memories Are Stored
There is scientific evidence that traumatic memories are stored in the part of the brain called the limbic system, which is sometimes referred to as the "emotional brain." Although the limbic system works with other areas of the brain and has more than one role in regulating emotions, arousal, and memory, for our purposes we will broadly focus on the limbic system's ability as a whole to moderate emotional memory.
The limbic system, according to Blue Knot Foundation, is responsible for the flight, fight, and freeze responses to threats.1 If, as children, our limbic systems were repeatedly activated by threatening and frightening experiences, damage might have been done to the actual structure and physiology of our brains. This may explain why we may overreact on an unconscious level as adults to what we perceive are threats. Blue Knot Foundation cites a study that found:
". . . a 38% increase of limbic abnormalities following physical abuse, 49% after sexual abuse, and 113% following abuse of more than one type combined."
These abnormalities, or damages to our brain, can cause adults with histories of child abuse to be easily triggered and more likely to experience negative emotional memory such as sadness, terror, panic, etc.
In other words, you are more likely to unconsciously remember the emotions linked to the abuse rather than the abuse itself (Repressed Memories of Child Abuse: What I Wish I'd Known). It is much easier for our nascent brains to store and recall the memory as an emotion rather than a vivid, cognitive memory. Also of interest is the fact that the younger the child is at the time of the abuse and the more repetitive the trauma, the less likely the cognitive memories will be remembered. Therefore, for some individuals, it is normal not to recall every traumatic experience endured but to still have fragmented emotional memories that have been taken on by our headmates.
How to Heal from Traumatic Memories
Knowledge of how emotionally traumatic memories are stored and recalled helps us to realize the retrieval of physical memories is not what is needed to heal. Looking at the emotional memory is more important. If your goal is to improve your quality of life, healing will begin when you establish safe and consistent communication with your headmates, as they are the ones holding the emotions. Processing and healing from trauma are more about coming to understand and making meaning of the emotions that are walled off, sequestered behind fear, and blockaded from access.
Without this necessary communication with your headmates, your emotions will stay compartmentalized and will not be integrated back into the whole of your person. Unfortunately, that means the emotions remain separated and fragmented from your memory and you will be unable to fully heal.
How to Process Your Emotions
- Communicate, communicate, communicate with your headmates.
- Connect to your feelings through journaling or art.
- Identify and experience the emotions your headmates carry.
- Do not run away from the pain your headmates hold.
- Be present. Stay in the moment. Face the pain.
- Address and understand how the emotions and traumas have impacted your life.
- Appreciate that your trauma is not your whole story but is only a portion of your life’s narrative.
- Place blame and responsibility where they actually belong: not on you or your headmates but on the abusers.
The Final Answer
Finally, not every cognitive memory needs to be remembered and processed in order to heal from DID. What is essential are the emotions our headmates carry. Connect with your headmates and work with them on gaining access to their feelings and emotions and to form a new understanding of them. It is only in our willingness to understand our headmates, to allow ourselves to experience their emotional pain, and to make new meaning of our emotional memory that will help us heal and move forward.
To understand my experiences with emotional and cognitive recall and how I've come to the place of communicating with my headmates, please watch the video below.
- Blue Knot Foundation. Impact On The Cortex and Limbic System. Accessed May 28, 2018.
Hargis, B. (2018, May 31). Must We Process All Traumatic Memories to Heal from DID?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, June 4 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/dissociativeliving/2018/5/must-we-process-all-traumatic-memories-to-heal-from-did
Author: Becca Hargis
I’ve been having mental health issues (serious) for 12 years now but probably my whole life unbeknownst to me, I recently found a trauma therapist and am thinking that I possibly have DID, my therapist agrees I have ‘parts’ but doesn’t like to label a person disordered. I’m having a pretty rough time of things for the last 10 months, literally living in emotionally charged flashbacks, trying not to harm myself etc etc, it’s really really hard, basically I wanted to know if you have experienced your DID in this way, what helped you and clearly is does get better as you are living proof! I am trying to live my life as normally as possible which with mega anxiety and fear is really difficult and trying to do opposite action to try and teach my body that it’s safe…your blog is great to read and I am grateful for it
omg thank you..im literaly in the midst of being diagnosed with DID...the chaos in my head over this & the fact i knew i had horrific memories i did NOT want to remember.....getting to 43years old & believing it DIDNT happen to me...then realising otherwise..internal freak out!...like every part of me running around like the house was on fire!.....thank u so much for your videos ...its the most assuring videos ive found...real information ..& explanations that fit....xx
Thank you for your comments. I am so sorry to hear that there is an "internal freak out." It does get better. Admitting that I had dissociative identity disorder took a long time. It might be the same with you, but with time, therapy, outside support, or something else, you and your alters can get through this. Keep in touch.
Hi Becca, Thank you for the great article. This helped me a lot as I have been trying to access the repressed memory and have not had any success after many sessions of hypnotherapy and others. I read a book called Presence Process by Michael Brown, and in it, he said that you are to access the details of the memory only if that is "required." However it is most important to be present with the feelings and sensations of the body, unconditionally, to integrate a trauma. Most other sources say one has to finally recall the incident to be able to completely heal from a trauma, but what you and Michael Brown say makes more sense to me. After all, it is not the details of the story that happened, but particular emotions one felt at the time of the incident, and if those emotions are accessed and tended repeatedly till what you call "headmate" comes to a state of peacefulness, then the integration can be possible. Would you agree?
do you have DID to are you a health professional?
Hi, Georgina. Thank you for the question. I was diagnosed with DID 22 years ago. Please let me know if you have more questions. Thank you.
You're very welcome.
Thank you very much. I hope it was helpful.