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  • Donna Glaser, LPC

Body Memories

Hi there! I am starting a kind of monthly blog post where I plan to write about therapy stuff. (That’s the technical term, by the way.) Each post will be about therapeutic approaches, coping skills, or similar themes. This month I’ve been talking with a lot of people about how trauma affects our bodies. So, this post grew out of that. Hope you like it!

I've always thought of grief as being like a great, still pool of water inside of us. When a new sadness, loss, or trauma occurs, it’s as if a trench is dug from this new source back to that pool, that source of earlier pain, and they flow together. It's not even so much that the pool gets bigger or deeper, but that the pain, fear, and/or sadness mix together and our remembered distress at those former losses spring up fresh and powerful again. For instance, having a loved one die will bring up memories of an earlier death or loss of someone you loved. It’s as if our bodies remember the pain, and indeed, they do. If you were able to grieve that earlier loss in healthy ways, the newer loss will likewise be dealt with.

However, as we know, past traumas or significant losses aren’t always dealt with. Sometimes that’s because the person hasn’t been taught to express difficult emotions or perhaps they come from a family where it’s more common to ignore or stuff their feelings. (Oh, those stoic Midwesterners!) Eventually, those unexpressed, undealt with feelings are going to “leak out” and affect their relationships in unexpected and, typically, unhealthy ways.

There are other reasons why a past trauma might be left unresolved. If a traumatic event occurs when someone is a toddler, he or she may not fully understand how that might be impacting them today. They may not even remember the incident, but their body does. Let me explain: Our long-term memories don’t fully develop until age three or so, which means that if a person experienced a loss or trauma prior to that age, their brain didn’t have the capacity to frame that experience with words. Instead, they might find themselves dealing with fleeting images or seemingly inexplicable body sensations. They may find themselves with a habit of misinterpreting something someone says or reacting intensely to a small, unintentional hurt as if it were a larger one. Or they might find themselves repeatedly getting into situations where, in hindsight, they realize that they overreacted, and they just aren’t sure why they keep running into these issues. These are all signs of a possible connection from a traumatic event from the past affecting the person in the present day.

As another example, during a life-threatening event, our brains aren’t able to record memories of a trauma experience even if we are old enough to conceptualize what happened with words or thoughts. People often have no recall of a horrific car accident or a physical attack, partly because their brains were so busy coping with the needs of survival that they weren’t capable of the higher-level functioning issues like recording memories. But again, even if we don’t have an explicit memory, our bodies can remember powerful experiences in ways that we don’t expect. This can lead to being triggered unexpectedly by a sound, smell, or even a stray thought. Reacting in situations without really understanding why, without understanding the connection to that past trauma. If you don’t understand that your body may be reacting to these memories it might seem very confusing.

So, what do you do? Well, there are several different approaches you can take to deal with past traumas, including... um... therapy. *waves* There are also techniques you can do on your own. Studies are showing what philosophers have known for ages: meditation is the pathway to healing our minds and bodies from past hurts and from present-day stressors, too. If you pretend your brain is a computer (which isn’t too far from the truth) then you can picture meditation as the way to recode the operating system. 

Don’t know how to meditate? No worries. Technology to the rescue! (Which is kind of ironic.) Anyway, you can find tons of meditation demonstrations on YouTube and there are also roughly a bazillion apps for your phone or tablet that offer meditations. Some of the more popular apps are Calm, Headspace, and Abide (Christian oriented.) But, be aware, most of those also have a subscription cost.

I’d love to hear how you feel about meditation!

In the meantime, be well!

Donna

PS. I'm trying to think of a cool name for these posts. They'll be coming out about once a month. Suggestions welcome! 

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Donna Glaser, MA, LPC

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