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Implicit vs. Explicit Memories - How (Adverse) Life Experiences Lead to Reactivity, Anxiety, etc.

If you're dealing with trauma, anxiety, or depression, it's essential to understand the difference between implicit and explicit memories. Memories play a crucial role in how we process and respond to emotional experiences.


Explicit memories are conscious and intentional memories that we can recall with effort. For example, remembering what you ate for breakfast this morning or the name of your favorite movie. These types of memories are stored in the prefrontal cortex of the brain and can be accessed intentionally.





On the other hand, implicit memories are unconscious and unintentional memories that are formed without our awareness. These memories are stored in the amygdala and other parts of the brain and can be triggered by specific cues or experiences. For example, feeling anxious or fearful when you see a specific object or smell a particular scent.



Implicit memories are stored in the survival part brain responsible for flight/fight, and influence our behavior and emotional responses. These memories are often formed through experiences that we may not remember consciously, such as early childhood experiences or traumatic events. They can trigger automatic emotional reactions or behaviors without our awareness.



Joseph LeDoux, an expert in neuroscience, emphasizes the importance of understanding the role of implicit memories in trauma recovery. Traumatic experiences can create implicit memories that are stored in the unconscious mind, leading to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.



One real-life example of how an implicit memory can manifest as anxiety is a person who was bitten by a dog as a child. Even if the person has no conscious memory of the event, their brain may store the memory as an implicit memory. This means that when they encounter a dog as an adult, they may experience anxiety or fear without knowing why.

LeDoux's research has shown that the amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure in the brain, plays a key role in processing fear and anxiety. The amygdala can become hyperactive in response to implicit memories of traumatic events, triggering a cascade of physiological responses such as increased heart rate, sweating, and rapid breathing.

In this way, implicit memories can influence our emotions and behavior without our conscious awareness. Understanding the role of implicit memories in anxiety can be helpful in developing strategies for managing symptoms and seeking appropriate treatment.


Imagine how an implicit memory might manifest if you had a mother who was dismissive or critical, or a father who was angry or abusive. For example, as an adult, when you're interacting with another person, and the dynamic of this interaction has any sort of the same flavor as those earlier experiences. It could be a facial expression, a certain tone of voice, or even specific words of phrases that your mother or father may have exhibited, your fight/flight reaction will be activated, because the amygdala is interpreting this moment as potentially threatening, even though it may be perfectly safe. This means if you are easy to get defensive, shut down, aggressive, or even fawning (people-pleasing), implicit memories could likely be playing a big role here.



To heal from trauma, it's crucial to work through these implicit memories and bring them into conscious awareness. This can be done through therapy, mindfulness practices, and other forms of self-exploration. By bringing these implicit memories into conscious awareness, we can begin to process them, release the emotional charge they carry, and develop healthier ways of coping with our emotions.


So, what can you do if you are struggling with trauma, anxiety, or depression? One important step is to become more aware of your implicit memories and how they are affecting you. This may involve working with a therapist who can help you identify and process these memories in a safe and supportive environment. You may also find it helpful to practice mindfulness or other relaxation techniques that can help you stay present and grounded in the present moment. This is one way of working in real time with triggers.


If you're struggling with trauma, anxiety, or depression, know that healing is possible. Understanding the role of implicit memories in your mental health can be a significant step towards recovery.


Hope you enjoyed this! I'm Robert, a licensed psychotherapist in Vietnam. If you benefitted from this, feel free to buy me a coffee below.




Also, don't forget! If this content resonates, you can deepen your understanding and your healing journey by signing up to Lunch Break Therapy or the soon to be released

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