“We use our minds not to discover facts but to hide them. One of the things the screen hides most effectively is the body, our own body.” ~ Antonio Damasio
Up until recently, psychotherapy almost exclusively focused on the mind and pretty much ignored the body. You know, “I think, therefore I am.” Well, not so much, Mr. Descartes. If one engages in effective trauma therapy (my specialty; and I’ll argue some other time that all therapy is trauma therapy), one must focus on both the mind and the body. This is because the body holds the memories of the trauma, whether big T or little t trauma. Our brain automatically turns off our mind, or at least turns it down, during trauma. After that, as Dr. Damasio implies, the mind protects us by hiding the body memories of the trauma. To heal from trauma, we must get around the mind and access (slowly, carefully) these body memories.
Let’s look at some details. You’ve probably heard the term “fight or flight.” If not, this briefly refers to our brain’s survival mechanism that automatically steps in when it faces a situation it perceives as dangerous. Notice I talk about your brain and not “you,” as this happens within a split-second and “you” have no control over it (thankfully).
First, your brain activates your body with energy. You might call this “stepping on the gas” (or, if you’re fancy, you could refer to activating the sympathetic nervous system). Your brain then uses the body’s energy to get away from the danger (flight). If it can’t get away, it uses the energy to ward off or deal with the danger, either physically or mentally (fight). If either one of these tactics actually works to avoid the danger, then you may experience little or no trauma. You can tell the story of how you “dodged a bullet” (maybe literally).
However, if both of these tactics fail, then your brain opts for a third “f” – namely “freeze.” This might look like the body going limp or fainting or tensing up as if paralyzed. Some people refer to this as “playing dead,” which gets at the survival value of this process. On that note, remember that this all happens in the service of your survival.
Depending on how fast you read, it probably took a minute or two to get through the last two paragraphs. Now, imagine all of that happening in the time it takes to snap your fingers. (Snap!) We can thank our survivalist brain for disengaging our thinking brain during this process. If it didn’t, and we had to depend on our mind to figure out what to do, we probably would not have survived as a species and you would not be reading this right now.
When our survivalist brain hits the off-switch on the thinking brain, the recording mechanism in our thinking brain shuts off with it. We no longer have a very accurate record in our memory of the “story” of the danger. This includes detailed language about the danger, the meaning (if any) of the danger, and an idea of the timing of the danger (like, it happened in the past, not right now).
At the same time, the body, which was very much active during the danger, does not switch off its recording mechanism. In fact, it may switch over to “high-def” format and record each excruciating detail of exactly how the body felt (physical sensations), what it sensed (smells, images, and so on), and what it was doing (moving, freezing, etc.) during the danger. This recorded “body memory” gets stored off with little or no connection to a “mind memory” to give it meaning, language, or a sense of time (such as “It’s over now”).
Moving into the future, these body memories may get “triggered” or activated by something that reminds the part of the brain that controls the body of the past danger. I should clarify that I know and you know that it’s a “past” danger. But the body does not know this. It believes that the danger is happening NOW, since it has no sense of time. The body instantaneously feels and acts just like it did during the danger.
This happens out of the blue, without any rational explanation that makes sense to the thinking mind. This can make someone feel like they are going crazy.
Furthermore, the more traumas someone experiences, the more body memories that can get triggered. In the worst cases, people can live in a constant state of fight or flight (or freeze) because their body memories get almost continuously triggered.
At this point, if you are still with me and have not floated away (dissociated) on some body memory, I invite you to check in with your body and see what’s happening. If you feel your body getting too activated, then please stop reading and do something that helps “put on the brakes” (activating the parasympathetic nervous system). This might include something as simple as noticing your breath, getting up and walking around, looking out the window at something in nature, hugging a pillow or stuffed animal or favored human, or anything that soothes and calms you down.
If you have gotten this far, it probably makes sense by now why I advise that you include body work (any of a number of methods that include body awareness, breathing, mindfulness, movement, “listening” to the body, and so on) in your therapy process. This goes for therapists as well as clients, as we therapists can begin to suffer from “compassion fatigue” or “secondary trauma.” Therapists, if these words do not exist in your vocabulary, start right now to get to know them.
In the meantime, please take the opportunity to get to know your body. Go slowly, even if you start with the tip of your little finger and that’s all you can do at first without getting overstimulated. Work with someone who knows about the body and knows how to help you access it in a safe manner. It will tell you a lot. You may not want to hear what it has to say and you may want your mind to continue to “hide the facts.” Yet, slowly and surely, you can recover from trauma by making connections between body memories and the thinking mind.
I wish you the best in this important endeavor.
Copyright 2014 Daniel J. Metevier