Letting yourself Remember: Emotions and Body

Whether the trauma was experienced in childhood or adulthood, if it led to PTSD, then some degree of amnesia or dissociation, or a later protective mechanism of avoidance and numbing, will have resulted.

Overcoming these avoidance mechanisms is difficult and painful. It is important for the therapist to understand that traumatic memory is retrieved from the implicit memory system, and will be experienced as free-floating images, feelings and sensations that may be disconnected from what autobiographical memory exists of the event. Do not underestimate the resistance to re-experiencing the terror, lack of control and emotional pain of a truly traumatic event. Do not push that resistance, go around it. Use creative therapies to allow the client to work from their right hemisphere, generating visual images that will usually bring some emotion with them but will not necessitate having to speak the details of the experience aloud.

Depending on the client’s inclination, such work can be done with drawing, or body/movement/dance/drama, or poetry and writing. Avoid overly interpreting the creative output unless the client expresses readiness to challenge the avoidance. Help the client to connect with the emotions embedded in the artwork, and help her connect with where these feelings are located in the body. The essence of such memory work is to help the survivor overcome their dissociation from the trauma event. Dissociation takes us out of our bodies and away from our emotions. Creative work should aim to reconnect the survivor with their body and their feelings.

Conscious memories will be pieced together slowly from the activity of talking about the artwork or creative endeavour. The survivor does not need the therapist to interpret for them. They should be given the space – and time – to do this for themselves. Encourage the client to allow plenty of time and space for reflection and rest, while their brain works to make sense of things. People tend to think of ‘rest’ as an indulgence, so explain that rest-and-reflection is part of the treatment, as important as coming to the session.

The process of ‘remembering’ will sometimes involve sensory memory recall. Such experiences will arise out of session time and be distressing for the person doing therapy. The traumatic memory recall is coming from the implicit memory system, and is very intense. I repeat here the explanation given in the section: “Meeting the Inner Child”.

. . . direct accessing of implicit memory through the physical body. A simple example would be: you have been involved in a car accident and were really shaken up by it. Later you are describing the experience to someone, and you find your body shaking, because the implicitly recorded fear of the moment of impact has been triggered and has surfaced. But it is IN THE BODY that the emotion is expressed, not in the brain.

The client’s response will be to resist and fight the feelings, which are intensely uncomfortable, and to shut down. A therapist trained in somatic work or emotional release therapy will encourage the client to use the therapy setting to learn how to work with this traumatic memory recall. A somatic therapist will typically say something like: ‘relax and focus on your physical body. Where are you feeling the sensation? The emotion will be coming from somewhere in your physical body. Focus on that and just allow it to be. It’s just feeling and isn’t dangerous, it will not send you crazy.’ If the client is open to emotional release work, the therapist might say: ‘stay with the feeling. How does the body want to move, to express that feeling?’ And they will then guide the client through the process of experiencing the implicit memory as a direct body experience, complete with physical sensation, emotional content, verbal content and memory content. Although this is the broadest, most encompassing form of traumatic remembering, it is also the most exhausting and confronting. Although it gets survivors to where they want to go quickest, not everyone chooses to do it this way. It doesn’t suit everyone who does the healing journey.

Remember the bottom-line requirements for trauma therapy – the survivor must be allowed to retain personal control at all times. It must be the client’s decision when to let go of the defences and barriers that have kept them from really ‘remembering’. If they make an informed choice to challenge their defences, with their therapist’s help, then the therapist can give a nudge or even a push to help them move past their resistance.



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