Brian Klassen, PhD: Suppressing Memories from Trauma Is Never Sustainable, Nor Healthy

It is a paradox that the harder we try not to think about something, the more we think about it. Memories and emotions related to trauma can only be suppressed for so long. It's like holding a beach ball under water. It's hard. You can do it until you can no longer do it. Trauma therapy, as offered during the Road Home Program, helps veterans and service members with PTSD bring their stories of trauma to the surface in a safe and controlled way and from there move toward healing.

Brian Klassen, PhD, is the Clinical Director of the Road Home Program, part of the Wounded Warrior Project's Warrior Care Network.

For information about treatments for PTSD please visit The Treatment Hub.

Going through a trauma, the memories are stored in your brain in a different sort of way than other kinds of memories. There’s sort of bits and pieces. There’s, you know, flashes of images, there’s sensory details that are in this kind of confusing mess. It’s sort of paradoxical that our brains are wired in this way of the harder you try not to think about things, the more you end up thinking about them. Right? And you know, this has been kind of shown in this like famous series of experiments, like the white bear phenomenon. Like if I tell you not to think about a white bear, what do you end up thinking about?     And so I often tell people that, you know, trauma and traumatic memories, it’s kind of like trying to suppress them, trying to avoid them, trying to keep them out of your mind. It’s kind of like holding a beach ball underwater. Like you can do it and do it successfully for a long time until you can’t anymore, until it doesn’t work. And so really the process of trauma therapy is kind of bringing that up to the surface in a controlled way.

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Posted on BrainLine October 8, 2021. Reviewed October 8, 2021.

About the author: Brian Klassen, PhD

Brian Klassen, Ph.D., is the Clinical Director for The Road Home Program: The National Center of Excellence for Veterans and Their Families at Rush University in Chicago, Illinois. Brian spent his formative years training at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, completing rotations in chronic pain management, residential substance use disorder treatment, and PTSD. Brian has special expertise in providing front-line treatments for PTSD, including Prolonged Exposure and Cognitive Processing Therapy.

Headshot of Dr. Brian Klassen