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The Memory of Trauma in the Body

Keith hadn’t thought about his father in many years. Though he had some good times with his dad, one of his most vivid memories was not so good. He was 10 years old and his father was determined to teach him how to dive. He remembers feeling pressured to get on the diving board and just do it. He remembers trying, really trying but he just couldn’t take the plunge.

“Let’s go, boy,” his dad yelled. “Just do it. Don’t be a wimp! It’s no big deal. Jump!” Keith wished it was no big deal, but for him it was. He felt terrified as he listened to his dad shouting and saw the other kids staring. But he could only stand there, his limbs frozen, his heart pounding.

When the lifeguard told him to get down from the diving board his father launched into a tirade. “What’s the matter with you boy? If you can’t even jump, you’ll never amount to anything. What’s wrong with you?” He remembers the tirade going on and on with his head hung low as he tried unsuccessfully to stifle his tears.  

Now decades later, Keith faced a totally different situation, yet his body responded as though it were the same. Keith just discovered that the job promotion he’d been expecting had gone to someone else. That was bad enough. But when he told his wife, her words hit him like a punch in the gut. “I can’t believe it! You’ll never get ahead if you don’t speak up. Be proactive or you’ll never be successful!”

It wasn’t only Keith’s brain that had stored the memory of that awful day on the diving board. It was also his body. His body stored the sharp tone of voice, the angry face, the finger pointing — insinuating how worthless he was. 

You may believe that your mind is the “control center” and knows everything that’s happening to you. But don’t discount your body! It knows things your mind isn’t conscious of.

  • Your body may remember trauma that your mind has repressed.
  • Your body may register fear that your mind discounts.
  • Your body may react to an event that your mind ignores.

Yes, the body refuses to be ignored. It speaks its own language and doesn’t mind telling you what it feels. Our colloquial language describes many reactions to fear.

  • I’m sweating bullets.
  • My heart’s pounding. 
  • I’ve got a knot in my stomach.
  • I’m shaking like a leaf. 
  • I’ve gone numb.
  • I’ve got a lump in my throat.
  • My legs feel like rubber.
  • I’m frozen stiff.

Though the body (as well as the brain) feels fear, your body’s response may be below your radar of consciousness. When it increases in intensity, however, you feel it and that’s when you may go for a quick fix: popping a pill, grabbing a drink or smoking marijuana to help you relax. These quick fixes do work — in the moment. But wouldn’t it be great to find other ways to relax your body, so the fear doesn’t overwhelm you?

Here are a few ways to do that:

1. Use Music to Change Your Mood

The consolations of music have age-old roots in both religious and secular settings. Hence, when you’re feeling tense, let a song pop into your head. Don’t force it. Trust the unconscious process to find the melody and lyrics that work for you at that moment.

Music can be a very therapeutic process, calming the body and soothing the soul.  

2. Trust Your Intuition

Intuition is what you know, not rationally but as an impression, an insight whose origins you don’t fully understand. It’s what’s you feel in your gut when something is okay or just doesn’t feel right. If your intuition is good, it can save you from worrying about danger that’s minimal or non-existent. It can also inform you when it’s appropriate to be afraid and what to do then. Trust your intuition and groundless fears will no longer dominate your life!

3. Combine Body Movements with Incompatible Thoughts 

S-T-R-E-T-C-H your arms way up to the ceiling. Now, jump up and down like an excited kid and yell, “I’m afraid! I’m afraid!” Can you stay fearful? Or are you laughing? I bet you’re laughing. Or at least there’s a grin on your face. Why? Because everyone knows that an upbeat body doesn’t have downbeat thoughts. Lesson learned? Physical action can short-circuit fear. Your body sends a message that’s louder and clearer than what your words say. So get your body moving in joyous, kid-like ways.

4. Surrender Control

Instead of trying to control your fear, you can experience it, observe it, speak to it or draw a picture of it. You can talk to your fear and have your fear talk back to you. Do that and you and your body will have a better understanding of what fuels your fear. Then, when you’re ready to let go of it, you will. And you can do that incrementally. On a 1-10 scale, if you can lower your fear from 10 to 6, wouldn’t that feel great?

5. Tighten Up to Relax

How many times have people told you (or you’ve told yourself) “relax,” “take it easy,” “don’t be so uptight?” But it’s not so easy to do all these things when fear is stored in your body. Paradoxically, however, tightening up can help you relax.

Clench your fist as tight as you can. Hold it like this for a count of 20. Then dramatically let go. What do you feel? Now do that with your other fist, your arms, your feet, your legs, your shoulders, your neck your tummy, your butt and so on. Are you relaxed yet? I bet you are!

6. Slow Deep Breathing

You may be unaware that you’re breathing shallowly, unevenly or holding your breath. What is your breathing like right now? Smooth or strained? Deep or shallow? Just becoming aware of your breath can start to calm you. To relax, inhale s-l-o-w-l-y through your nose, then exhale s-l-o-w-l-y through your mouth. As you do so, say something reassuring to yourself like “it will be okay.” Do this three times and feel your body and mind relaxing. And don’t be surprised if you start yawning.

Okay, I’ve suggested six ways you can help your body relax. When you do them old fears and groundless fears will no longer dominate your days! Here’s to joyous living!

©2020

The Memory of Trauma in the Body


Linda Sapadin, Ph.D

Linda Sapadin, Ph.D. is a psychologist and success coach in private practice who specializes in helping people become the best they can be. You can reach her at [email protected] Visit her website at www.PsychWisdom.com. Follow her on FB: facebook.com/Dr.Sapadin/


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APA Reference
Sapadin, L. (2020). The Memory of Trauma in the Body. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 14, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-memory-of-trauma-in-the-body/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 20 Mar 2020 (Originally: 21 Mar 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 20 Mar 2020
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.