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How Memory Works

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Memory is one of our favorite psychological processes and neuroscientists are still learning how our memories work and studying strategies to improve and maintain it. A basic breakdown of memory looks like this: an individual encodes or takes in information, stores that information some place in the brain (current research indicates the pre-frontal cortex, amygdala, hippocampus, and the cerebellum are holding houses), and then retrieves it when needed. There are three main types of memory: short term, working memory, and long term memory and then we have subtypes of those including auditory, verbal, nonverbal, visual, and kinesthetic memory. Some of us may find our visual memory is stronger than our auditory memory, so it might be easier to learn and retain new information presented to us visually, rather than verbally. Memory is a very important component to traditional education and learning. Basically, if you have strong memory skills you are very likely to do well at school. Strong performance on memory assessments is highly correlated with academic success at all levels. It would be unusual to find a gifted student that did not shine on the memory components of the cognitive assessment, while students found in need of learning support services may have low scores on the memory components of the cognitive assessments. As with most brain related things, memory is subject to neuroplasticity meaning it can be changed, shaped, improved or damaged. Memory is also an ability that can improve with practice just as a muscle is strengthened when exercise. What damages the memory? Alcohol, smoking, drugs, age, injury, and disease are some well-known offenders. What improves memory? Learning new information, brain games, mindfulness activities, eating a healthy diet, exercising, and sleeping a sufficient amount daily.
What are some tricks that you can use to help yourself and your students to sharpen memory? Repetition, drill and practice exercises, and frequent review– this helps with things like math facts, learning geographic information, and historical facts. Mnemonics, acronyms, abbreviations, songs, and rhymes- this helps with lists of information that phonetically do not have things in common.

Chunking and grouping information– this strategy helped you learn your social security number and phone numbers back in the day.

Use all of your senses– paying attention to how something looks, sounds, tastes, smells and feels helps you to remember it.

Rely on the GPS and Google less- our brains have become lazy because they do not have to work so hard. Try to do pencil and paper math, look for landmarks to find your way, and think through problems before relying on technology to help you.

Use a Memory Palace – this is an imaginary location you visualize in your mind where you can store mnemonic images. It’s like making a mental visual map in your mind of what you need to remember.

Sleep- your brain needs sleep to encode and retrieve information. When you cram for a test the night before and do not sleep, that information will be stored in short term memory only and then be discarded. A great study tip is after an hour of study, try to take a nap, then repeat this cycle for a few days. Make sure you always sleep 8 hours the day before an exam.

Drink Water– Dehydration has been shown to cause memory problems.
Eat more of these– The brain responds to food. The Mediterranean diet, especially fatty fishes, have been linked to strong memories:

  •   plant-based foods, especially green, leafy vegetables and berries
  •   whole grains
  •   legumes
  •   nuts
  •   chicken or turkey
  •   olive oil or coconut oil
  •   herbs and spices (Tumeric)
  •   Coffee and dark chocolate
  •   fatty fish, such as salmon and sardines

Use a Memory Palace – this is an imaginary location you visualize in your mind where you can store mnemonic images. It’s like making a mental visual map in your mind of what you need to remember.

Eat less of these– sugar, fats and processed foods have been linked to impaired memories:

  •   sugar
  •   processed foods
  •   butter
  •   red meat
  •   fried foods
  •   Alcohol
  •   salt
  •   cheese

Be well and exercise that brain! Karah and Suzanne

What is Compassion Fatigue?

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Compassion fatigue is a very interesting condition that impacts many people in the helping professions like teachers, counselors, doctors, and first responders and those who are caregivers of a loved one. So what is compassion fatigue?  Compassion fatigue is the negative consequences associated with caring about someone. Compassion fatigue is not a disorder or a disease but rather symptoms that professionals and caregivers experience from being exposed to second hand trauma, suffering, inequality, and distress. Like most conditions associated with mental health, individuals with compassion fatigue will manifest traits in many ways.

 Some common symptoms can include lack of empathy or compassion for those who are suffering or feeling numb to the pain and suffering of others. This is your brain’s way of trying to protect itself from second hand trauma and being affected by the pain of others. Another common symptom of compassion fatigue may be over empathizing and feeling others’ pain too deeply to the point where it causes anxiety, irritability, and depression in the caregiver. Individuals who manifest compassion fatigue in this way tend to “take their work home with them” or “take on other peoples’ problems to solve”. 

 We see so much sadness and dysfunction at work, in our communities, on television, and at home and we all process it in different ways. Especially during  the pandemic, there has been an increase in physical illness, mental health struggles, and financial woes that have impacted so many of us. Compassion fatigue is a real thing, especially in the present moment.  So what can individuals do who are experiencing compassion fatigue?

Set boundaries– Set limits to the time you spend at work, to your charitable donations, and the time you spend thinking about or doing work outside of hours. Practice saying “No“.

Stay grounded– Try to stay present, check in with yourself multiple times a day and name what you are feeling. Mindfulness activities are great ways to stay in the moment and will help with feeling numb to others’ suffering and pushing your feelings aside.

Feel your feelings– Don’t spend too much time ruminating about the sadness or pain you come across in your day; however, it is healthy to name what you are feeling and to honor that feeling then gently let the feeling go.

Practice self-care– Taking care of yourself, being kind and gentle with your self-talk, and making time for you are great ways to combat compassion fatigue. If you dedicate 100% of your time to any one person, place or thing, you will end up resenting it. Take time for you.

Accept reality- Life is unfortunately filled with suffering and injustice. Accept what you can control and change and what responsibilities come with your role. Don’t get stuck on the “why” things are unfair or sad.  People get sick, people die, and people take advantage of and hurt others. These things are all very sad but you cannot control, fix or prevent any of that. Focus your energy on what you can do. You are only responsible for your behaviors. Become familiar with your values and moral obligations.

Take care of yourselves!

Big “T” and little “t” Trauma

Emotional trauma can come in many shapes and sizes and some clinicians colloquially use the words Big T and Little t to describe different types of trauma. What is important to know is that everyone handles, processes, and recovers from trauma differently and that is okay! It is also important to know that all trauma is painful and will impact the survivor.  Big T and Little t trauma can alter your brain, behaviors, and emotions. Just as trauma can change your brain and your behaviors, healing, practicing coping skills, and making a commitment to care for your mental health can also change your brain and behaviors in very positive ways. 

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Examples of Big T trauma usually include witnessing or being present at a life changing or very high stress, violent or dangerous event. Examples of Big Ttrauma include:

Being present when a shooting takes place

Being present when a natural disaster is taking place (hurricane, earthquake, tornado, etc.)

Living in or being deployed to an active war zone

Combat

Witnessing or being the victim of a violent crime

Sexual Abuse

Terrorism

Being in a severe car or work accident

Sudden death of a primary caregiver for a child

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Examples of Little t trauma usually include nonviolent, non-life threatening events that sadly are more common in society. Due to these events being typical, often individuals brush them off or rationalize their experiences as normal bumps in the road of life. Some examples of Little t trauma include:

Interpersonal conflicts and bullying

Emotional and verbal abuse

Infidelity

Divorce

Family separation

Moving

Legal problems

Financial troubles

Losing a job

Living with or having close relationships with people suffering from addictions, physical illness, or mental health conditions

Living in extreme poverty or unpredictable environments 

The problem with trauma is that the effects are cumulative and someone who has been exposed to multiple Little t traumas for a long period of time sometimes can have more severe symptoms and difficulties than those who have been exposed to one Big T trauma. Looking at both lists, think of how many people you know who may be struggling with symptoms of trauma!!!! Consider this before becoming frustrated or angry when you see behavior that is upsetting to you.

Individuals that have trauma may present with nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, isolation, insomnia, depression, emotional dysregulation, memory problems, difficulties concentrating, irritability, and hostility. All kinds of trauma are very unpleasant and many individuals avoid dealing with or talking about their trauma. In order to treat trauma you have to work your way through it, not around it. 

Please consider this information and practice kindness and compassion with others and yourself!