Our bodies are with us through all of life’s experiences. They’re like a memory-book that holds all of our memories on file – some are at the front of the book and some are buried deeply in the back. Some pages are well-warn and used, and some haven’t been looked at since the memory occurred. Regardless of where our memories are located, they are still a part of our stories, they still make up the pages of our books.
Our bodies store our experiences. They carry around memories of joy, excitement, stress, shame, guilt, fear. They also come in a range of emotional levels, all depending on what the nature of our experience was. Maybe it was something trivial and routine, such as the smell of your coffee in the morning – a soothing and comforting memory, but likely one that doesn’t stand out. Or, maybe it’s something that threatens your safety, that forces your body into a mode of protection, such as fighting in combat, being sexually abused, being in a car accident, or growing up with neglectful parents. What happens to your memory-book with these experiences? How does something like this impact our bodies?
Dr. Gabor Maté describes trauma as “a psychic wound that hardens you psychologically that then interferes with your ability to grow and develop.” He says that “...trauma is not what happens to you, it’s what happens inside you as a result of what happens to you." If our safety or sense of self is threatened due to an event, a person’s actions, or a lack of action, the response to this experience is stored in our bodies. It becomes part of the memory-book.
...trauma is not what happens to you, it’s what happens inside you...
So, what is happening physiologically during this process? Our memory-book impacts our brains, which impacts our responses to events in life. Van Der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score (2014) describes this process. When we take in information from our surroundings (what we see, hear, smell, and feel), our brain makes sense of what is happening to us and sends this information to our amygdala. The main function of the amygdala is to identify whether what we perceive is happening to us is relevant for our survival. It does this with help from the hippocampus that relates this information to our past experiences. If memories of threat are stored in the hippocampus, our brain now thinks that this memory is currently happening. The amygdala sends an instant message through the brain stem to our autonomic nervous system to begin a whole-body response. By the time we realize what is happening, our body may already be having a trauma-response. Our stored memories interfere with our body and brain’s ability to determine if we are in danger or not.
This whole-body response activates our sympathetic nervous system (SNS). When fear and danger have been stored in our bodies because of past traumatic or distressing experiences, our SNS is activated and elicits an anxiety and danger-perceiving response to something that we identify as life threatening. Our bodies go into fight, flight, or freeze in order to keep us safe.
After trauma, we experience the world with a different nervous system that has an altered perception of risk and safety (Van Der Kolk, 2014). When our body experiences something it perceives as a threat, our sympathetic nervous system is activated, which pumps our body with epinephrine (i.e., adrenaline). It’s preparing our body for survival because it thinks we’re in some type of danger. This is our body’s way of keeping us alive.
Our survival mechanisms can start working against us when trauma is stored in our bodies. The emotions we’ve attached to those memories become triggered when we perceive a similar threat will take place. Ultimately, our view of the world shifts and we have increased difficulty reaching a state of safety and relaxation (Van Der Kolk, 2014).
Everything we experience in our lives has an impact on us. It can be beneficial to work through your own unique memory-book with a professional to understand your responses and what they may be connected to. Going forward, I encourage you to pay attention to your body, notice what it may be storing, and offering your experiences compassion and space to be felt.
Van Der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.
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