What Are Body Memories?
When we experience severe trauma our bodies respond accordingly.
For example, the body’s production of ADRENALIN significantly increases, as does its production of CORTISOL (both of these are STRESS HORMONES).
In turn, this leads to bodily responses and sensations which include:
– increased heart rate
– increased sweating
– hyperventilation (rapid and shallow breathing leading to feelings of panic which can be severe and distressing).
The MEMORY OF THIS BODILY RESPONSE is stored in a particular structure of the brain which is known as the AMYGDALA. The phenomenon is known as ‘BODY MEMORY‘.
Unfortunately, however, this means that when we have an experience that reminds us of the original trauma that produced these bodily effects, the amygdala RESPONDS AS IF THE ORIGINAL TRAUMA were happening again in the present, and, therefore, REPRODUCES the same unpleasant bodily sensations which occurred at the time of the original trauma.
These unpleasant, re-experienced bodily sensations may be accompanied by:
The re-experiencing of such bodily sensations happens because our brain has essentially, as a result of childhood trauma, been CONDITIONED to respond to any perception of threat (whether real or imagined) in this way as the threat triggers memories of the threat we experienced as children.
Indeed, many who suffer extreme childhood trauma develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or complex post-traumatic stress disorder (Complex PTSD) as a result during adulthood and such individuals often respond to events that remind them of the original trauma BUT ARE NOT OBJECTIVELY SPEAKING THREATENING as if they were objectively threatening.
REACTIVATION OF BODY MEMORIES CAUSING US TO FEEL HOW WE DID AT TIME OF ORIGINAL TRAUMA
This occurs because, whilst, under normal circumstances, two specific brain regions – the HIPPOCAMPUS and the FRONTAL CORTEX – would ‘realize’, so to speak, that the threat was not real, and, in so doing, reduce excitation of the amygdala (see above) thus quickly calming us down, if we have been so traumatized in childhood that we have developed PTSD, the ability of the hippocampus and frontal cortex will have been impaired to such an extent that this calming process FAILS TO OCCUR.
Thus, we are left to reexperience how the original trauma made us feel due to the REACTIVATION of our ‘BODY MEMORIES’
In essence, our brain has ‘tricked’ us into believing we are reliving the original trauma.
It is worth pointing out that these TRAUMA MEMORIES DIFFER FROM NORMAL MEMORIES IN AS FAR AS:
a) they are fragmented and disorganized
b) the recollections are involuntary/invasive/unbidden
c) the memories lack temporal context (i.e. they do not feel located in time/it feels like the recalled events are happening ‘right now
d) our reaction to the memories remains unchanged – we react to them, on an emotional level, in the same manner, that we originally reacted so, if the traumatic events happened when we were a child, we will REGRESS to that childlike, fearful state.
Can The Body Itself, Rather Than Just The Brain, Store Memories?
Some theorists believe that memories can literally be stored in the body itself at a cellular level; whilst some studies have suggested that this cannot be entirely ruled out (Cosier, 2015), there currently exist no known mechanisms in human biology that would facilitate the storage of memories anywhere other than in the brain (Smith, 1993; Lilienfeld et al. (2002). sometimes leads to confusion over what the term ‘body memories’ actually refers to but, most modern theorists use the term to refer to the body’s response to memories of trauma that are stored in the brain
COMPASSION FOCUSED THERAPY can help to reactivate our INTERNAL SELF-CALMING SYSTEM and help us to develop our ability to feel safe, reassure ourselves, reduce our own distress, and minimize any self-blame we may feel (it is extremely common for those who have suffered severe childhood trauma irrationally to blame themselves for their suffering without the intervention of effective therapy).
It is particularly important for us belatedly to learn such techniques if our parent/s failed to nurture us in a compassionate manner when we were growing up as this would have deprived us of the opportunity to learn and develop such skills which, in turn, leaves us exceptionally vulnerable to the negative effects of stress in adulthood.
- Cosier, S. 2015 “Could Memory Traces Exist in Cell Bodies?”. scientificamerican.com. doi:10.1038/scientificamericanmind0515-14b.
- Smith, S( 1993). “Body Memories: And Other Pseudo-Scientific Notions of “Survivor Psychology Issues in Child Abuse Accusations.
- Lilienfeld et al. (2002). Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology. The Guilford Press. ISBN 1-57230-828-1.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).