You’re in a new place. You’ve just left all your friends and family, possibly your job, and you’re trying to adapt to a new culture, new town, new people. And all of sudden your mind plays one more trick on you: You start to involuntarily remember random and obscure memories from long ago.
I have been subjected to culture shock on more than one occasion. It seems my mind, while trying to make sense of all the new stimuli around me, unlocks memories from years ago. This has happened nearly every time I’ve undergone a extreme shift in my surroundings, but it was only this last time moving to Kansas where I realized the pattern. The memories aren’t always traumatic or even unpleasant. They just resurface. It was distressing to me at first because I didn’t feel like I needed to process or analyze the situation again, and there wasn’t an obvious lesson that lent itself to the present situation. So on top of the unwelcome resurrection of the memory and feelings, I had to also sort out real-time data and feelings. It was a whopping mess of psychosis and reality swirling about at once.
This time I decided to write down the memories when they came back. Some of the memories seemed like good material for a book some time. Other memories, I realized, were situations that weren’t necessarily traumatizing but still needed to be unpacked, because I needed to handle certain aspects of myself in relation to the experience or person involved.
For example, I had found out a friend, who had rebuffed my attention and love interest in my twenties, had died unexpectedly from hanta virus. I started to think about that relationship in minute detail during my time adjusting to Wichita. It helped write down and process the relationship, as well as, express anger over the friend’s death. The exercise of journaling about his death and my theories about why he’d refused conventional medicine that would have saved his life somehow allowed me to finally to put to bed his romantic rejection as well.
I researched memory for this post to try to frame the phenomenon so that it was less traumatic, because frankly it is distressing to cope with memories and culture shock at the same time. Apparently, stress, homesickness, and depression cause your mind to reconsolidate, rearrange, and re-organize memories.
Memories about your personal history are called autobiographical memory: age, culture, and gender seem to play a role in how a person codes an experience into a memory, how that memory is stored and finally how that memory is recalled. When stress, or even trauma, triggers a memory recall, the current situation can directly reshape the memory while you are still processing the current event. At least on an unconscious level, the current situation has a relationship to the memory you are recalling. Fresh perspectives from the current situation on a memory can alter your storage and beliefs about the past experience. That is why you’re triggered. This has to be what happened when my friend died and I started remembering non sequitur albeit excruciatingly detailed things about our time together.
Homesickness can even cause hallucinations (its happened to me) which can be disorienting. But I’m thinking now it is because your mind is trying to sort out new situations with old situations into a linear sequence that makes sense (it has to do with your hippocampus and amygdala).
All of this does sound a little like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), except with PTSD, you actually relive the traumatic experience over and over and are triggered from from many kinds of things. PTSD is a serious mental health condition that in many cases needs professional assistance to overcome. What I’m describing is less traumatic experiences resurface as a result of a significant change in your life. These memories can be an opportunity for you take care of some minor emotional issues for good and pack them away–forever. Please don’t hesitate to get the help you need if you are struggling with PTSD.
I hope I can embrace the memory recall next time and see it as an opportunity to flesh out emotions I haven’t dealt with yet.
What’s been your experience with memories or the past when you’ve relocated? Please share in the comments below!