Key Takeaways

    • Our five senses play a role in capturing and storing memories of cardiac arrest.
    • These sense memories have the power to bring back emotions long after the actual event.
    • Understanding that what you are feeling is normal can help you begin to process the experience and develop coping skills.
How do my senses store traumatic memories?

When we are experiencing something intense and deep, our senses capture and store memories. They have the power to bring back feelings and emotions long after the actual event. For example, an old familiar song may take you back to your first date, or the taste of a freshly baked pie may place the child in you at your family’s holiday dinner. The same can be true when you witness or take action during a traumatic event like cardiac arrest. Sounds, sights, physical sensations, smells, and even tastes associated with the incident can become natural parts of your memory.

As someone who witnessed or participated in a cardiac arrest, you may identify with some of the items on this list of common sensory reactions that connect with challenging memories. Understanding the role memory plays in reliving and processing the event can be helpful in your own healing.

Sense of hearing

The sounds and voices associated with witnessing cardiac arrest can have a strong impact on memory formation. Sudden loud noises, screams, sirens, or specific words or phrases spoken during the incident may be stored in your memory. Some people have indicated that they can hear everything yet nothing at all, as if their ears are on but unable to process words.

Wife/lay rescuer insight: “When I approached the kitchen, I heard an almost otherworldly sound that I can hear to this day. Just beyond the counter, my husband was gasping for air and making grunting sounds. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was in cardiac arrest… I immediately called 911. I’ll never forget the mechanical voice of their life-saving AED.”

Sense of touch

Physical sensations experienced during the event, such as pain, pressure, or physical contact, can be imprinted in our memory. Individuals that perform CPR may have the sensation of the ribs “popping” or the sensation of bones rubbing together. Generally, people become more aware of physical sensations to certain textures, temperatures, or pressures.

Wife/lay rescuer insight: “Adrenaline was coursing through me. I could feel the sensation of my heart beating out of my chest, while he lay silent. Then I found my focus and started CPR. Even now, I sometimes feel my hands on his chest, pressing hard and trying to give him his heartbeat back until EMS shocked his heart into a normal rhythm.”

Sense of sight

Our visual sense plays a significant role. We perceive and remember visual details such as the environment, people, objects, and actions during the event. These images are vivid when something triggers the recall. It could be looking at the place where the incident occurred, people who helped, or things that were used sometimes appearing randomly in your mind or dreams.

Wife/lay rescuer insight: “I can’t get my husband’s cardiac arrest out of my head. It’s like a movie that plays over and over and over in my head. I see his eyes staring lifelessly at me. I see his face turning blue-black. I can’t help but think of it when I stare at the spot in our kitchen where it happened.”

Sense of smell

It’s a well-known fact that our sense of smell is closely linked to memory and even emotions. Certain smells present during a critical incident may become strongly associated with the memory, and the smell itself can later trigger vivid recollections or emotional responses.

Sense of taste

Although less prominent compared to other senses, taste can also be involved in memory formation during an incident. The taste of something consumed or an associated taste sensation may be remembered, even altering appetite. This is often expressed by individuals that performed mouth-to-mouth respirations, or those who were consuming food when the incident occurred.

Wife/lay rescuer insight: “My husband was getting coffee when he suffered cardiac arrest. The smell and taste of coffee bring that memory back in vivid detail.” 

Our five senses play an active role in capturing and storing powerful memories. If triggered, these memories can take you back to the moment of the event, as described in this article through the lived experience of a lay rescuer who is a co-survivor. Her partner survived the cardiac arrest to hospital discharge. The first step to your own recovery is understanding that sense-driven memories can be powerful and that what you are feeling is normal. This understanding can help you begin to process the experience and develop coping skills.

Thank you to our contributors

Paul Snobelen & Jennifer Chap

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