The Body Remembers what You'd Rather Forget

(A perspective on Trauma) 

By Kristen Massey, LMFT


A Stressful Event

About a year ago, I bought this really nice new couch. I borrowed a truck from a family member to transport it, but the sofa was just a little bit too long to be able to close the back hatch of the truck. So it was loosely strapped down and my husband and I decided it wasn’t worth worrying about because the sofa was heavy and grippy enough to maintain its position, given that we didn’t drive too fast or hit any major bumps. 

We drove slowly around the treacherous (I’m exaggerating) curvy, bumpy roads to get the sofa home without accidentally dropping it out of the truck in the process and damaging it or something behind us. My muscles were clenched the entire time. My body thought that by being all tense it could somehow prevent us from hitting any major bumps and could avoid disaster. My stomach had that anxious tightness, my shoulders were crouched in, my legs were squeezed together. You guys know the feeling I’m talking about.

We manage to get the the sofa home fine and without any real problems. I forgot about the ride entirely because it wasn’t a big deal to me. A few weeks later, I was riding in the same seat of this same relative’s truck and suddenly I felt that familiar tightness in my stomach, shoulders, and legs. What the heck? Nothing unusual was happening. It took me a minute to realize that my body was remembering the last time I was in the truck and hadn’t realized that this was a different scenario and that there was nothing to worry about. I took a few deep breaths and relaxed, presencing myself to the moment and sending the signal to my body that all was well, creating relaxation. 

How this Relates to Trauma

When we talk about trauma, what we are talking about is much more complex than just the “memory” the way we typically think of it. Our muscular, endocrine, respiratory, and nervous systems are all put on alert during stressful events in order to help protect us. Traumas are exceptionally stressful events because what trauma means is that we don’t have the internal ability or the external help to deal with whatever thing we are perceiving that feels really bad to us, so our bodies go on very high alert and then are unable to deal with all the energy that was generated. 

Say, for example, that a child feels threatened by a bully at school on a regular basis and no matter what he does, he can’t seem to feel safe and powerful around this bully. Instead he feels hypervigilent, worried that he’s going to be insulted, humiliated, or physically attacked. His little body will create a state of tension much like mine did when transporting that sofa, because that’s the way his body knows how to protect him.

The next year this little boy, let’s call him Sam, might move to a different school, leaving behind the bully and the threat and for the most part he may put it out of his mind. The adults have reassured him that things are better now, he doesn’t have to face the daily confrontation. But, for some reason, when Sam is walking to the bus every day, the same place the bully used to confront him, he still feels tense. Consciously he knows he’s not in danger, but his body systems remember something that his mind would rather forget. So he notices himself feeling anxious, tense, and maybe a little snappy with the bus driver. The adults in his life might think he’s just acting out. And he is! But not because he’s a brat or needs a time-out. He’s literally acting out the drama that is still alive and well in his body. 

Making Deeper Connections

In the example given above, Sam experienced his trauma symptoms when reminded of a mostly obvious connection. But, in many cases, the connection is not that obvious. Adults find themselves especially stressed at work because the way their boss talks to them reminds them of their condescending step-father and the feelings of never being good enough. Or someone panics in an elevator because the contained sensation reminds them of feeling trapped when an older sibling used to hold them down and hit them. Because the triggers can often feel pervasive if the person is unable to pinpoint exactly what’s triggering them, and/or because the person had so many habitual instances of feeling stressed, sad, lonely, etc., many people live in a perpetual state of flight-fight-freeze to some degree without even knowing it. The body is remembering the stresses of yesterday even when the mind has long since (or wishes to) forget. 

A Call to Action 

All of these unresolved traumas are slowly weakening every body system. Your immune system is compromised by the constant stress; your adrenals are fatigued; your digestive tract can never fully relax. Your intellect can never operate at full capacity because your brain is always slightly taxed, even when you are unaware. You can eat the healthiest diet in the world and exercise hours a day, but if you ignore your emotional health, your body will still remember it. So do yourself a favor and take care of your emotional health. Find a counselor, talk to a friend, find a spiritual practice. Above all, acknowledge and honor what you’re feeling even if you’re unsure where it came from.