The Body Remembers: How Trauma is Stored
by Sarah Dwelle, MA, LPC Associate, EMDR Trained
Supervised by Allison Eckelkamp, MA, LPC-S, RPT-S™ and Pamela Allen, MA, LPC-S
Why do I feel nauseous driving toward my 20th high school reunion? Is it strange that after I pour over our finances I feel a burning ache behind my sternum? How is it possible that a certain someone walking into the room causes my heart rate to jump? We don’t need a deep dive into research for us to accept that our emotions are felt in our bodies, but what is the story behind this connection?
I like to think of emotions as meaning signals. My nausea upon entering my reunion might be a signal to me that I am nervous and anxious—possibly even dreading a specific encounter. The burning ache I notice after checking my bank balance can signal that I am feeling financially insecure. And in both cases, there may be an older story quietly, implicitly at play. A heart rate increase might be the first indicator that I am starting to fall in love with someone or, conversely, that I feel a person is unsafe. Generally speaking then, these felt senses (the emotion) in our bodies are links between an experience and a meaningful feeling. Our bodies have their own wisdom, as Bonnie Badenoch says in Being a Brain-wise Therapist.
Now, let’s say that I experience something atypical, unexpected, and disturbing. This experience is so strong, so overwhelming, that my meaning-making part cannot sort it out. My logical brain is unable to comprehend it, offer feeling words, and allow me to file the experience into a known category. When there is no known category, when I cannot fully process this disturbing event, it is likely to become a stored traumatic experience. In his widely impactful book, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk explains how research has shown that traumatic events remain with us as more than mere memories but rather imprint themselves on the mind, brain, and body in a way that alters our experience of the world around us. Now our bodies perceive daily life events as threatening and respond in extreme ways, extremely quickly. The hopeful news is that imprinted, “stuck” trauma can become unstuck. Studies support that, though it can take time, trauma-focused modalities can alter and begin to heal a person wounded by trauma.
This growing understanding of the complex relationship between the body and mind has brought many changes to the mental health field. Badenoch explains that this shift in understanding offers nuanced ways to affect traumatic memories as well as developmental wounds: “At this point, focus on the body can stand side by side with emotional and cognitive work—and, in fact, developing our capacity to work with all three domains can increase depth, speed and ease of recovery.”
Recent research and shared experience in our field give counselors hope and reason to celebrate and lean into this good work. As Christian counselors, we recognize that the more we understand about the body and mind connection, the more we understand about our Creator. I love how Curt Thompson frames Paul’s words in Romans 12, where the apostle calls us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. We cannot know all that God understands or intends for us, but Scripture teaches that God recognizes our minds as something changeable, renewable, and a space in which we can become more like Him.
Of course, trauma work can be disruptive! One of the first things therapists will do with clients when starting this therapy is to help them shore up and develop resources. The idea is that we can have healthy coping tools we can turn to if we begin to feel overwhelmed. The more we strengthen these resources, the less we will find ourselves coping in maladaptive ways, like numbing ourselves via social media binges, flying off the handle with someone we care about, managing with substance abuse, just to name a very few!
My favorite resource is breathing. Deep breathing is beautifully basic and powerful to calm. There is a lot to read about when it comes to patterns and methods and benefits of deep breathing. If you haven’t tried it yet, here is a simple exercise for you. Find a fairly quiet spot. Sit upright to allow room for breath, and begin by slowly filling your lungs with air so that you feel your belly expand, followed by your chest. Hold your breath for just a comfortable few seconds. Now breathe out slowly and evenly through your mouth—the key here is to gently purse your lips so that the out breath is controlled, even audible. This slow, long, exhale communicates with your body and tells your nervous system that all is well, that you can feel safe for a while. And most of us could benefit from the freedom to let our guard down for a bit, couldn’t we?
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk M.D.
Being a Brain-Wise Therapist: A Practical Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology by Bonnie Badenoch
The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves by Curt Thompson
What Happened to You: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing by Oprah Winfrey, Bruce D. Perry
What My Bones Know: A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma by Stephanie Foo