Trauma and Memory

PTSD, trauma, somatic experiencing, healing trauma, trauma healingWe humans have two very different forms of memory. One is conscious and what we would consider as normal memories–stories and historical recollections that seem to be arranged sequentially in time. This is called explicit memory. The other form is called implicit memory and is unconscious. This memory can’t be recalled at will, and contains no sequence of remembered events.

One form of implicit memory, called procedural memory, is profoundly unconscious and is how trauma imprints itself on the body/mind. This type of memory is used in learning mostly physical activities like walking, riding a bike, skating, etc. These are procedural or “body memories” that are learned sequences of coordinated physical movements. You may not remember exactly how and when you learned them (explicit memory), but they are instantly “recalled” and mobilized when needed (implicit memory) such as when you jump on a bicycle and start pedaling. You remember how to ride the bike without remembering consciously how to ride it.

When a person is exposed to overwhelming stress, threat, or injury, they develop a procedural memory of a pattern of reactions that were activated in response to the threat. Trauma occurs when these unconscious procedures are not neutralized and remain in the body. These body-memories prevent us from restoring the body to a peaceful state and is how the debilitating symptoms of trauma come into being.

In other words, the response to threat and injury by animals, including humans, causes biological and non-conscious actions to be executed that prepare them to meet the threat. These patterns of action, including activation, dissociation and freezing are evolutionary survival behaviors and the basis of trauma. When threatened or injured, all animals respond in similar ways. We orient to the threat, stiffen, duck, retract, fight, run, freeze, collapse, and so on. All of these responses are body-based. They are things the body does to protect and defend itself. When these responses just don’t work, and we are overwhelmed or unsuccessful, we experience trauma.

The bodies of traumatized people display their unsuccessful attempts at defending themselves.  For example, when we prepare to fight or to flee, muscles throughout our entire body are highly energized and tensed in specific patterns of readiness and reaction. When we fail to complete these actions, we are unable to discharge the tremendous energy generated by our survival responses. This energy then becomes fixed in the muscles and nerves in specific patterns of readiness. The person’s central nervous system then stays in a state of arousal. Traumatized people are not suffering from a disease; they have become stuck in an aroused state. It is difficult if not impossible to function normally in this condition.

In an attempt to make sense of their stuck, highly activated survival responses, traumatized people will often create stories that match their internal states. These “memories” may not be accurate but only metaphors for their implicit memories. Many survivors of trauma need an “explanation” for their disturbing internal states. For example, many people who suffered invasive medical procedures as children when they were too young to remember,  may create false memories of molestation and abuse that seem to explain their symptoms. A child may experience a frightening surgical procedure that feels very much like a rape. They will then constellate images, however false, that support this interpretation.

Since trauma is implicit, whether or not you can remember a traumatic event explicitly is not necessary for healing to take place.. What is necessary for the resolution of trauma to take place is to complete the incomplete physical responses to threat and to discharge the energy that was mobilized for survival. In this way, survivors can begin to heal by releasing the frozen energy that at the core of their trauma. By doing so, they begin integrating the implicit experience into a conscious narrative. These stories will  elements that are historically accurate, some that are symbolic of feeling states, and some that seek meaning that promotes the healing process.

I once had a client who experienced anxiety, and ongoing pain and cramping in her pelvis and lower abdomen. By the time I saw her, she had been to many doctors over the years who could find nothing wrong. Eventually, she went to a psychic who told her she had been molested by her father as a baby. Evidently, this had happened between the ages of six months and one year old, the time when her father had returned  home from military service and then abandoned the family. Since the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain in charge of storing explicit memories, does not come online until eighteen months old, she could not have biologically remembered the event. But after hearing the psychic’s explanation, her physical pains constellated images of molestation around the sensations and created a virtual memory of the incidents. After several sessions, she recalled that her mother had said that she had several medical procedures as a baby that involved the areas where she still had sensations.

By focusing on arising body sensations throughout our sessions, she was slowly able to tap into the implicit memories and release the patterns of tensing  and retraction she had experienced as a baby when being poked and probed by male doctors. She also was able to follow her bodies urges to clamp her legs shut and pull away, movements her body wanted to make as a baby but couldn’t. As she now allowed herself to make these belated movements, her pains slowly went away. And once the symptoms vanished, the images of being molested also vanished, leaving her with better feelings about men in general.

While explicit memory is accessed primarily through thoughts and images, implicit memory must be reached through the body. The client, through her feeling senses, was able to follow her body’s intentional movement, a movement that is unconscious and experienced as if the body is moving of its own volition. Through completing the actions that her body had prepared for at the time of her medical procedures, she released that bound energy and realized that she had, in fact, not been molested at all.

Healing or resolving trauma involves the gradual discharge of the original compressed survival energies, which is accomplished by completing the biological defense and orienting responses that couldn’t be completed at the time of the trauma. It is not about reliving the traumatic event  that can lead to re-traumatization.

Somatic Experiencing (SE) is based on the understanding of why animals in the wild, though they are routinely threatened and attacked, are rarely traumatized. Their ability to fully discharge the highly activated energies mobilized for survival and resume normal functioning points to an innate capacity to resolve trauma. Humans share this capacity too. One of the paradoxical and remarkable aspects of implicit traumatic memory is that once it is accessed through the felt sense, it changes into something more resilient and strong. We can also learn how animals restore homeostasis after being aroused by a threat. Empowered with these innate resources, people can transform trauma too.

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3 Responses to Trauma and Memory

  1. Rita says:

    That was extremely informative and helpful.

    It’s hard for most people to understand trauma and its intricate inner-workings, it’s a good thing that on top of being a great therapist (that I have the fortune of working with) that you can articulate this complex process so well.

  2. Karen says:

    It has been 43 years since I was involved in a traumatic incident,and broke my ankle.I was grabbed from behind,and flipped over backwards hitting the floor.Up until recently I have been able to function normally.I was looking at my yearbook,and remember only in pictures.I feel the need to know why this person did this.Can you help me?

    • L. Kessler says:

      A part of the brain is always going to know why something happened. This is a way of protecting oneself from having it happen again: if I know why he did it, then I can avoid situations like this again. Unfortunately, knowing why comes from the cognitive areas of the brain and has little effect on trauma. Sure, it makes us feel better to know why, but it doesn’t change the physiological trauma responses initiated in lower levels of the brain and housed in the body.

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