Childhood Trauma: What To Do When Bad Memories Intrude

Surviving childhood trauma is an incredible achievement for women. You may not even be aware that you’ve done it until, one fine day, you realize that you are finally free of the traumatic, toxic environment.

Then, sometimes, bad memories intrude.

Childhood trauma, particularly family violence (experienced as well as witnessed) and childhood sexual trauma, rank among the top causes for developing PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

One of the symptoms of PTSD is intrusive memory — images, feelings, and traumatic scenes from your past that pop up in your mind without invitation or a conscious decision to remember. Many survivors of childhood trauma feel haunted by those memories and don’t know how to stop them from turning up. Once they have appeared, those unwanted and often very disturbing memories can hang around for a long time, and they can prevent you from engaging with your life as it is right now. Some survivors say the memories feel as if it all happened yesterday. Some even feel compelled to replay those painful scenes over and over again.

Research suggests that the reason traumatic memories are so vivid and bring up so many painful emotions is because these memories are stored in the brain where they can be activated quickly if any situation in the present looks similar – these are the notorious “triggers.” The evolutionary reason for this may have been to alert our stress response system to sources of mortal danger that we survived in the past, and to enable us to fight or flee without having to reflect. However, for survivors of childhood trauma, intrusive memories become obstacles to healing.

Traumatic memories contain important information and many survivors report that the memories fade into the past when this information is processed through counseling and psychotherapy.

What should you do when bad memories intrude?

  • Don’t tell yourself to just forget it. You can’t. All you do is add another layer of bad feelings when you can't make them stop. The memories come uninvited and they won’t just go away because you tell them to.
  • Don’t blame yourself. Neither the memories of childhood trauma nor the events that created those memories are your fault. They are not a sign of weakness.
  • Stop and acknowledge. Yes this is happening. If you try to ignore the memories, they will just intrude more.
  • Reality check. Although your bad memories can be very vivid, the fact is, they are just memories. Images and stories from the past. You don’t live in the past. You live now. You survived. You are free.
  • Connect with the present. Thoughts may not be enough to convince the part of your brain that flashes up your trauma memories. Try to use simple mindfulness techniques to connect with your current environment. Listen to the sounds around you, whatever they are, birdsong or cars in the street, breathe in deeply and take in the smells, again, whatever they happen to be, coffee, flowers, heavy machinery. Smell is a very powerful sense that will anchor you in reality and can even override memories, at least briefly.
  • Call in support. If it gets really bad and the memories establish themselves in spite of your best efforts, or if they even spark other bad memories, don’t hesitate to contact your support network. It helps if you have friends who have agreed to be “designated listeners” in advance.
  • Long term healing. Psychotherapy has been treating survivors of childhood trauma for many decades with great success. Psychotherapy provides a way to process your childhood trauma consciously so that it can be transformed into a more ordinary memory that doesn’t get triggered so easily. Sometimes people ask why they should have to look at the painful past in order to get better. The answer is: because the unresolved pain is already there. In your memories, in your dreams, in your life history.

Childhood trauma needs to be processed so that it has less power over you now. Bad memories can be worked through until they no longer dominate your present thoughts.

The past will always be your past. Let it stay there.

Allow yourself to progress from “surviving” to “thriving.”


Janie McMahan, MA, LMFT is a therapist in Austin, Texas. As a trained trauma therapist, she works with women to help them heal from traumatic events of childhood and adulthood. Call her at 512-739-2494 for more information and scheduling.