“These data highlight the importance of the many ways in which the brain processes traumatic experiences. Psychotherapy tends to focus heavily on the articulation of trauma memories. However, the current study highlights that these explicit memories may not represent all brain processes that drive distress and disability…In other words there may be a mismatch between what people think and how they feel about their traumatic experiences. Thus, there may be role in treatment for measuring other dimensions of response, such as physiologic arousal, through which some of these other forms of learning are expressed.”
When people experience a traumatic event, the body releases two major stress hormones: norepinephrine and cortisol.
- Norepinephrine boosts heart rate and controls the fight-or-flight response, commonly rising when individuals feel threatened or experience highly emotional reactions. It is chemically similar to the hormone epinephrine – better known as adrenaline. In the brain, norepinephrine in turn functions as a powerful neurotransmitter or chemical messenger that can enhance memory.
- Research on cortisol has demonstrated that this hormone can also have a powerful effect on strengthening memories. However, studies in humans up until now have been inconclusive – with cortisol sometimes enhancing memory, while at other times having no effect.
“negative experiences are more readily remembered when an event is traumatic enough to release cortisol after the event, and only if norepinephrine is released during or shortly after the event.”
Further studies are needed to explore to what extent the relationship between these two stress hormones differ depending on whether you are male or female, particularly because women are twice as likely to develop disorders from stress and trauma that affect memory, such as in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In the meantime, the team’s findings are a first step toward a better understanding of neurobiological mechanisms that underlie traumatic disorders, such as PTSD.