Pandemic trauma affects our memory. Here’s how to be intentional about the way we tell the story of this year. | Elizabeth Wellington
The stress and trauma of the past year affect our ability to form clear memories. So it’s essential to think about how we will tell our story of the pandemic. Here’s how to be intentional about it.
I wonder about the things I’ll tell a young person about this year under the pandemic, when I become an elder.
Will working for home be the center of my coronavirus tale? Will I recall the nights I spent praying to God to heal my brother-in-law from his brush with the virus and spare my sister and her children from contracting it? (Everyone is fine.) Perhaps I will most remember the time spent with family: The hours helping my nephew with his virtual homework or letting my niece paint my eyelids electric blue. Maybe it will be all the ways I realized my parents were getting older and how glad I was to be there to help them.
These memories will shape my coronavirus story.
But how we remember this year isn’t as easy as you think: The stress and trauma of the past 12 months affect our ability to form clear memories. So it’s essential that we think now about how we will tell our story of the pandemic. Here’s how to be intentional about it, and why it matters.
Why remembering this year is important
How we recollect this year could influence our new normal. Memories of living through The Great Depression is why my grandmother washed her pantyhose out every night. Will I now forever be wary of crowds? Will I continue to buy hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes in bulk? Will I ever be comfortable sitting at the bar again?
Yet, arguably more important, our memories of our lives this year — and the lives lost — will shape how other people think of this time. They will inform the stories we tell to those who are too young to remember what we’ve been through or weren’t even born yet. So while we may still be inside the experience, we should start reflecting on what we will remember. If we do this honestly and with intention, perhaps the stories of essential workers, who were exposed to the virus every day, will matter as much as the executive who bought a Peloton while working from home.
“How people tell their stories is a study of resilience,” said Aimee J. Palumbo, an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Temple University’s College of Public Health. “And we have to consider how this has impacted everyone different from ourselves by acknowledging everyone’s experience.”
It’s the only way, Palumbo said, we stand a chance at doing better next time.
The pandemic, trauma, and our brains
Memories are constructions our brains create to help us prepare us for the future, said Mijail Serruya, a neurologist and neuroscientist at Jefferson University Hospitals. We store a variety of memories from experiences we have lived through and those inherited from our family and community. Scientists believe these are baked into our DNA.
But remembering this year is different, because it’s been a year of prolonged trauma.
Trauma impacts how we encode, consolidate, and recall these memories. Living through this pandemic has caused ongoing, chronic stress that we’ve never lived through before.
The daily monotony makes our memories fuzzy as each day bleeds into the next. So we may be tempted to write the last 12 to 18 months off as lost time. What’s worth remembering about this? But that would lose the lesson. And no one — not ourselves, not those who come after us — will stand to benefit from that.
“Even if you are the only person in the room, your story matters,” and sharing what we went through connects us to others, said Cecily Alexandria, a Philadelphia-based comedian and storyteller. “If we save and document what happens to us, the people who come after us will be able to move forward,” Alexandria said.
In addition to the daily stress, it’s also been a year of flashbulb traumas: specific events — like deaths, illness, and sudden job losses — that were more short-term in nature, yet have a lasting impact. The flashbulb traumas of the last 12+ months weren’t just related to the coronavirus. George Floyd’s killing and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests that tore through the nation, Election Day, and the Capitol siege were all flashbulb moments that experts say will affect how clearly we can remember the rest of this year.
“Flashbulb traumas get encoded a lot more strongly in our memories,” said Crystal Reeck, a neuroscientist and assistant professor at Temple University’s Fox School of Business. “The details become very sharp, as if the details were etched into our brains in bright colors. We remember everything.”
Or at least we think we do.
Our memory reflects our identity
Just because the details are so vivid we can taste them doesn’t mean they tell the full story, Reeck said. Memories fueled by emotion can be unstable, said Lily Brown director of the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania. And what we choose to remember is connected to how we perceive ourselves: We tend to hold on to the parts of the memories that put us in the best light.
Take how we think about, and remember, slavery. Descendants of enslaved people were told stories by our parents and grandparents — in painful specifics — of the cruel treatment during the antebellum and Jim Crow eras. These stories were not passed down through the families of enslavers in the same detail. Why? Experts say that these stories were forgotten and dismissed because they don’t reflect who America thinks it is. The result: We live in two racial realities where a big chunk of the country believes we see systemic racism everywhere. And another big chunk swears it doesn’t exist at all.
“What we choose to remember is often based on our position of privilege,” Serruya said. “[Many of] those who want to forget 2020 can because they actually can, it didn’t impact them in the same way it may have impacted someone whose family died or who actually died from the virus. They can’t just put it behind them. They have to process it. Those memories are real.”
Why we should remember intentionally
It hasn’t been easy, but the coronavirus has offered us a rare opportunity to look our country’s inequities and recalibrate how we see our lives and our roles in it. We can start making adjustments now. And what we choose to remember will impact what we choose to do. If we make an effort to remember the entirety of our pandemic story and acknowledge others’ experiences, perhaps we can get to that more equitable future we say we want to get to but aren’t exactly sure what path to take.
How to tell your story better
Here’s some advice from Philadelphia storytellers to help us start thinking about how you can prepare to tell your story of this year.
Believe in the importance of your story. It doesn’t matter if you are not the loudest voice in the room; your story matters, said Hillary Rea, founder of Philadelphia-based story sharing collective, Tell Me a Story. “There is this fear that if we are not the loudest voice, people won’t hear us, and that’s not true,” Rea said. If you believe your story is valid then prepare to tell it. Period.
Document the details. “Document the feeling and the fact,” said Alexandria. “That is how you will find what is your truth.” Write them down. Record it. Take pictures. Sketch. Whatever you do, it’s important to document your memories as they unfold, Also, Alexandria said, be as authentic as you can. Now is not the time to push down your true impressions because they don’t jive with your self-image. If you feel guilty, admit it. If you found some sprinkle of joy, note that too.
Don’t rush it. There is a rush to record the story, so your memory is accurate, but there is no rush to tell it. Why? Because, Rea said, “You want to tell your story from your scars, not your wounds.” If you rush to tell the story while it’s happening, it can get in the way of healing. “Understand that some of these stories won’t be ready to be told for a while,” Rea said. “And that’s OK. We all need time to process.”
Know your perspective will change. You may record an event with intense feeling today, but a day, a month, or a year later, you might be less emotionally charged. Acknowledge that, Alexandria said. That shift in your perspective may signal growth or closure. And that is a part of your story, too. “Over time when I tell stories, the intensity changes and then I get to a point where I remember the burning, but it doesn’t hurt as much to touch anymore.”
Listen to others. Your story matters, but so does everyone else’s. “It’s important that we share our stories collectively, but we have to actively listen others’ stories, too,” Rea said. In this way, we will be exposed to a breadth of experiences and perhaps won’t be so quick discount experiences of those who are different from us.
Cecily Alexandria, Philadelphia-based comedian and storyteller
Aimee J. Palumbo,, an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Temple University’s College of Public Health
Hillary Rea, storytelling expert, public speaking coach, and founder of Philadelphia-based story sharing collective, Tell Me a Story
Crystal Reeck, a neuroscientist and assistant professor at Temple University’s Fox School of Business
Dr. Mijail Serruya, neurologist and neuroscientist at Jefferson University Hospitals