Posted on Apr 22,2021
Do Our Bodies Remember Trauma? Exploring Somatization in The Aftermath of Narcissistic Abuse
Memory is a fickle and ever changing cognitive process. The encoding of information depends, to a certain extent, to exogenous factors and to the level of arousal present in the body at the time of processing. Remembering a particular event also depends on how personally meaningful it is to us and how it shifts our affective state. We all have memories associated with certain sensorial cues, such as smells, sounds, people, or places that stay in our awareness for a long time. Our minds work according to pre-established schemas that determine whether certain incidents are likely to capture our attention or fall out of our perception. This is why we are more likely to remember emotionally-charged events: the adrenaline secreted as a result of arousal helps us encode those incidents in our minds in order to defend ourselves against potential injuries. Similarly, when we are in the middle of a deeply terrifying incident, we are very likely to retain a vivid and precise recalling of it for a long time. As research has shown, the higher the adrenaline levels, the more accurate your memories are going to be (Roozendal et al., 2008). But this explanation only works up to a certain extent. When the terror we are confronted with is unbearable and registered by our nervous system as an inescapable shock, our minds are more likely to shut down. How is this explanation relevant in the case of traumas that result in C-PTSD? What role does memory play in this traumatic disorder?
Explicit and Implicit Memory in Trauma
Memory is a complex cognitive process that not only relates to conscious recall – it can also be involved in unconscious associations between certain stimuli and events. Different types of memory are associated with complex neural networks and stored in different areas of the brain. For example, explicit memory (also called declarative memory) requires conscious thought and allows us to retrieve factual information. It can also be easily verbalised by detailing factual accounts of events and episodes in our lives – such as what we did during a work dinner party last week. In contrast, implicit memory (also known as automatic memory) is largely unconscious and it is stored through the association with environmental cues, sensorial stimuli or as physical sensations rather than as a narrative memory of the past. In the context of overwhelming traumatic experiences, the consolidation of the explicit memory is inhibited – this is because the frontal lobe shuts down and the functioning of the cortical areas responsible for putting feelings into words and integrating data of incoming sensations is significantly impaired (Van Der Kolk, 2014). At this point, the emotional brain (the limbic area and the brain stem) takes over and elicits changes in physiological responses and emotional arousal. The high arousal resulted from traumatic experiences impair the proper storage and integration of new information due to the disconnection of brain areas such as the hippocampus and the thalamus.
Amnesia, a Necessary Factor in Trauma Survival?
Trauma survivors remember too much and, at the same time, too little. On one hand, traumatic experiences can leave individuals without any clear recollection of entire series of events, in a sense that they are unable to put into words the exact details of the story. On the other hand, they might also act out previous episodes of trauma as if they happen in the present moment. Memory loss has been reported in people who have undergone intense events such as natural disasters, sexual abuse, narcissistic abuse, war trauma, accidents and others. This was recognised as early as 1980 when the DSM-III reported memory loss in the context of traumatic events (Van Der Kolk, 2014) as a diagnostic criteria for dissociative amnesia. Some research argues that forgetting serves as an protective factor – while the human brain is wired to remember experiences relevant for survival, in threatening situations, forgetting might be a better coping mechanism. This can be relevant especially in the context of relationships where the victim undergoing abuse perceives the abuser as a source of caregiving or emotional nourishment. The victim “forces” themselves into forgetting the episodes of traumatization in order to hold on to the source of care and nurture. Forgetting instances of trauma also helps victims gain a sense of control over a deeply chaotic situation – bypassing details of traumatic events is the only way of dealing with overwhelming situations that are impossible to integrate into one’s conscious awareness.
The Body Remembers Traumatic Memories
Traumatic memories are heavily disorganised. This is why some individuals might recall certain details very clearly – such as the smell of the person around which trauma happened (Van Der Kolk and Fisler, 1995), a visual cue, or a song related to the time specific to that particular event. On the other hand, they might have difficulties with recalling the sequence of events or other essential details – such as what the abuser did on a daily basis, who else was there at that time in their life, etc. Some studies reinforced this idea and showed that people who witnessed or experienced a traumatic incident are not able to tell what exactly happened immediately following the incident. For example, someone witnessing a fatal car accident might be unable to provide factual details when the ambulance arrives. The different sensations and details that enter into the brain when something terrifying happens are not properly encoded and organised into a story or a piece of autobiography. Some individuals might only remember trauma in the form of flooding sensations, images, and emotions. This is because at the time of the trauma, the rational brain and the emotional mind fail to work together and integrate the whole picture of the event (Van Der Kolk, 2014). Therefore, the rational brain disconnects and leaves the emotional brain to encode sensorial memories in the form of overwhelming feelings and sensations. Remembering trauma can often be solely involuntary and automatic; it does not happen as a result of conscious effort, but rather results from the contact with cues and stimuli that remind someone of the time in their lives when trauma happened. In other words, trauma survivors have an “energetic reaction” to the traumatic event and are highly likely to respond to neutral situations in the same manner they bodies responded to previous trauma – by experiencing somatization and eliciting the same aroused emotional response. The implicit memory, which is unconscious and automatic, only relies on the input and version of events stored in emotional brain; therefore; someone is more likely to remember emotions-based information rather than factual details. This is also why many people are unable to contain their emotions when past trauma is re-enacted – their frontal brain had very little involvement at the moment of traumatization, hence it will also be unengaged at the moment of trauma re-enactment.
The Science of Flashbacks
Flashbacks happen when the victim of trauma feels as if they are re-living the same incident over and over again. They might lost contact with the surrounding environment and their awareness might diminish. Temporarily, they feel as if they are taken back to the time and place of the trauma and their physical reactions might change as if their body is under attack. This is because the brain stored all the sensory data from the traumatic incident and it is using this information to create symptoms of somatization such as increased heart rate, panic attacks, dissociation and numbness. When a certain memory is maladaptively processed, the brain will reactivate and animate that memory, leading the person to create the same physiological response that they had during the event. The individual experiencing flashbacks might also experience a decline in their cognitive processes due to the overwhelming activity of the emotional brain and the flooding of stress hormones. The decline in cognitive functioning can also be explained by the fact that, at the time of the trauma, the activity of the prefrontal brain was, if not shut down completely, then significantly reduced – hence the brain uses the same coping mechanisms as it did during the traumatising event. Many people might also find that simply trying to cognitively reframe one such event is rather futile; since the memory has been encoded via sensory processing, the only way to adequately reframe the event is also through the feelings and sensations experienced in the physical body.
Healing Trauma Through Somatic Release
In the recovery from C-PTSD, it is important to include somatic techniques that not only help the victim access their repressed memories, but also support them in releasing those memories from their body. Trauma does not only impact the mind – it is not a cognitive process that one can simply mentally refer back to. For this reason, victims of trauma who suffer from C-PTSD should be supported holistically to regulate the response of their autonomic nervous system, to achieve emotional balance and to integrate past overwhelming experiences. The stabilization of the autonomic nervous systems can allow victims of trauma to begin their process of healing through different practices (The Mind Institute) such as counselling and psychotherapy, breathwork, and physical practices such as yoga. Body-based interventions help individuals return to a baseline physiological state of safety after an intense memory of trauma is triggered. Research shows that regular yoga practice trains the ANS to be more adaptive (Streeter et al., 2012), which in turn leads to positive alternations in brain functioning, such as decreased amygdala activity and increased hippocampal volume.
Furthermore, interventions in trauma recovery should also aim to help survivors re-establish a connection between their mind and body and to learn to be physically present with their affective experiences. Body awareness is a vital component of recovery, as it allows individuals to experience life from the perspective of their current physical sensations rather from the view of past traumatic events.
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Roozendaal, B., Barsegyan, A., Lee, Sangkwan (2008). Adrenal stress hormones, amygdala activation, and memory for emotionally arousing experiences. Progress in Brain Research, 167, 79-97
Streeter, C., Gerbarg, P. L., Brown, R. P. (2012). Effects of yoga on the autonomic nervous system, gamma-aminobutyric-acid, and allostasis in epilepsy, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Medical Hypotheses (78) 5, 571-579
The Minded Institute. “Yoga, Trauma, and PTSD”. Available at https://themindedinstitute.com/yoga-trauma-and-ptsd/
Van Der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps The Score. Penguin Books
Van Der Kolk, B.A., Fisler, R. (1995). Dissociation and the Fragmentary Nature of Traumatic Memories: Overview and Exploratory Study. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 8 (4), 505-525