Tissue memory – how emotional trauma gets trapped in the body
Updated: Aug 21
At the cellular level, our body remembers everything we feel and experience: sounds, smells, tastes and touches. Each cell within us stores memories – information – about our experiences, habits, sensations and emotions. As a result, painful disturbing memories can stay trapped in our body long after a traumatic event has passed. This means that trauma isn’t “merely” felt emotionally – but is experienced on a very real, physical, cellular level. Moreover, trauma that remains unprocessed over time can become "stuck" – not just in our subconscious mind and memory, but throughout the body’s tissues as well. Depending on the nature and impact of past trauma, the pain it generates can persist within the body, taking the form of physical sensations/symptoms, chronic illness, or destructive behavior patterns. Even as our memory of certain events seemingly fades over time, the body does not forget.
What the mind represses, the body remembers.
In his groundbreaking book, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. explains how trauma (and its resulting stress) harms us through physiological changes to the body and brain, and how these emotional wounds can manifest and persist over the course of a lifetime. In what he refers to as “the unbearable heaviness of remembering” he confirms that excessive emotional stress can predispose us to everything from diabetes to heart disease and even cancer. Indeed, Van der Kolk powerfully argues that trauma is one of the West’s most urgent public health issues. And the list of its effects is long, impacting our mental and physical health, employment, education, crime, relationships, domestic or family abuse, alcoholism, and drug addiction.
Over the course of our lifetime, we will all experience some sort of trauma. And while trauma is a word we often associate with war, violent attack, rape, abuse, or a near-death experience, these are only the most prominent examples of trauma. In reality, there are a wide range of other, less obvious experiences that are traumatic and have the potential to seriously disrupt our lives and damage our health. Dealing with a serious illness, death of a loved one, breakup of a significant relationship, loss of a job, or leaving a beloved community can all be very traumatic. Moreover, trauma isn’t necessarily one specific event. Micro-traumas — chronic, on-going, “smaller” traumas — that culminate over many years can be just as damaging (if not more so) than a single, macro-trauma.
Our body keeps a physical memory of all our experiences.
Trauma can be defined as any deeply distressing or disturbing experience that prevents us from moving forward in life. This can include a single, damaging event such as a car accident or rape, or continuous abuse that perpetually engages our emotional defenses. It can even include intense, physical, over-training that focuses on isolated muscles that can lock the body into a recognized pattern. Because our body, mind and spirit can only safely handle a limited amount of stress, trauma results whenever an experience exceeds our ability to cope with its consequences.
When the pain of trauma becomes lodged within the body, the physical location and sensation can take many forms: chronic neck and back pain, a chocking sensation in the throat or constriction in the chest, digestive disfunction, sleep disruption, or even a cool numbness. Trauma that remains stuck years after the actual event can cause us to disconnect or disassociate from our physical body to avoid the pain, harming our health and restricting our growth as human beings. While dissociation helps us to survive within the moment, over time it comes at a huge cost: separating us from the wisdom of healing that lives in the body. When we dissociate, we miss the intuitive signs of illness, hunger, satisfaction and ease within our body. Worst of all, we fail to fully connect with others on a deeper level because we are not fully connected to ourselves.
When we cut off our ability to feel pain, we also cut off our ability to feel joy.
As we carry our stress, anxiety and trauma around with us – using food and other addictive behaviors to help cope with difficult emotions – our lives lose meaning as our health suffers.
A Means of Protection
In any traumatic situation, the body activates our protective “fight, flight or freeze” mechanism, releasing hormones so that: the heart beats faster, blood pressure goes up, breathing races to deliver more oxygen, big muscles get tense ready to run or fight, non-essential functions such as digestion slow down, and adrenaline surges to fuel our escape. This is the normal response to any stress or trauma in the short term. When a traumatic event is overwhelming, however, it can overload the nervous system and stop the trauma from being processed. We become stuck in our “fight or flight” response, and the autonomic nervous system becomes locked in a state of continued hyperarousal and hypervigilance. Alternately, the body may “freeze” and go into a kind of detached state. The brain disconnects from the body, and energy from the trauma is stored in our bodies’ tissues – primarily muscles, fascia and organs – with degeneration and disease being the inevitable consequence.
Trauma is not a mind or memory issue, as is commonly thought, but a body issue.
Prolonged “fight, flight or freeze” response to trauma has very real, physical consequences. Studies show that PTSD disrupts hormone secretion, neurochemistry, and immune system functioning, all of which contribute to diseased cells, organs, and other bodily systems. Genetic research also reveals that PTSD patients have shorter telomeres — the segments on the ends of chromosomes that are a measure of cellular age and longevity — than their healthy counterparts do.
The Chinese Medicine Perspective
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the oldest documented medical system that recognizes the mind-body-spirit connection, is grounded in the belief that our physical condition is inextricably and energetically linked to our psychological state. It acknowledges the mind’s ability to disrupt organ function with its energetic power as well as the spirit’s essential role in healing. Qi – our vital life force – is the energy that animates all of our thoughts, actions and emotions, keeping the mind-body-spirit connected, balanced and whole. Our Qi life force also carries information and intelligence with it. Indeed, Qi is the homeostatic mechanism that allows the body to heal itself and maintain a state of wellness. Vibrant health requires that Qi flow freely throughout the body via the meridian system. Trauma – be it physical or emotional – disrupts the flow of Qi, causing it to become “stuck” – forming dense, energetic “knots” in our body that eventually lead to pain, dis-ease and imbalance. Blockages that impede the flow of Qi due to trauma prevent the healing transformation we need to release our pain and move beyond it.
In TCM, our emotions and physical health are intimately connected. Indeed, strong emotions represent powerful energies that affect our Qi and overall health. Sadness, anger, worry and fear each have particular “seats” within certain organs of the body – and trauma that generates such strong emotional responses will invariably manifest in related physical symptoms. For example, bitterness and inappropriate anger affect the liver, typically resulting in menstrual pain, migraines and dizziness. This wisdom is emphasized in the Nei Jing, a classic text of TCM written over 2,500 years ago: “Overindulgence in the five emotions — happiness, anger, sadness, worry and fear —creates imbalance.” According to TCM, strong emotions are viewed as potential “internal pathogens” that have the ability to impact our health the same way that a virus or other “external pathogen” might. Emotions that we experience intensely, suddenly, or chronically hold on to have the power to imbalance our physical health and drain our vitality.
Below is a summary “blueprint” outlining how over-powering emotions interact with our body and the impact they can have on particular organ networks, according to TCM:
Organ Network: SPLEEN
Emotions: Chronic worry, anxiety, rumination, obsession, excessive mental work
Physical Sx Signaling Organ Imbalance: Lethargy, loss of appetite, poor digestion, loose stools/diarrhea, low metabolic function, excessive menstrual flow, weak muscles, excessive bruising
Organ Network: LUNG
Emotions: Greif, profound sadness, depression, detachment, inability to “let things go”
Physical Sx Signaling Organ Imbalance: Shortness of breath, shallow breathing, excessive sweating, cough, frequent colds and flu, allergies, asthma
Organ Network: LIVER
Emotions: Strong or inappropriate anger, resentment, frustration, bitterness, “flying off the handle”
Physical Sx Signaling Organ Imbalance: Breast pain/distention, menstrual pain, headaches/migraines, dizziness, red eyes, redness in the face, tendonitis
Organ Network: HEART
Emotions: Lack of enthusiasm, depression/despair, inappropriate laughter or over- excitement, agitation, inability to express one’s self
Physical Sx Signaling Organ Imbalance: Insomnia, heart palpitations, irregular heartbeat, excessive dreaming, poor long-term memory
Emotions: Fear, insecurity, isolation, lack of will power, aloofness
Physical Sx Signaling Organ Imbalance: Frequent urination, urinary incontinence, night sweats, poor short-term memory, low back pain, ringing in ears/hearing loss, premature gray hair/hair loss
To Heal Trauma, Work with the Body
Because trauma is stored in the body, treatment to ease trauma must also involve the body. Ultimately, three things are necessary for the body to release stored trauma: 1. The inner resources to handle the experience that were not in place when the trauma originally occurred
2. Space for the traumatic energy to go once it is released – since being overwhelmed with tension and stress does not allow space for the stored trauma to move into
3. Re-connection / re-integration of the brain with the area of the body where the trauma has been stored
A multi-faceted, holistic approach to healing is the best way to release the hold that trauma has over our lives. Many types of verbal therapy have proven invaluable to help develop a person’s inner resources to handle a traumatic experience. In addition, certain bodywork styles (such as myofascial release) can help relax the muscles and surrounding fascial tissue that house traumatic memories and unlock the frozen components of the nervous system. Acupuncture can help “unlock” Qi in tissues/organs where trauma has essentially solidified so that it may flow freely again throughout the body. Moreover, acupuncture can help regulate the nervous system – modulating between the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous systems – to dampen hyper-arousal and bring a person back into homeostasis, or balance. Trauma-sensitive Qigong and yoga practices can also provide a supportive, self-paced method of gently making choices in relation to the body that are compassionate and subtle. Finally, mindful meditation practices such as body scanning, walking/grounding meditation in nature, and eating mindfully are all examples of gentle activities that can help reclaim connection with our own body.
Taking an integrative approach to healing that combines traditional, trauma-focused talk therapies with complementary healing modalities such as acupuncture, yoga, meditation and massage will allow for a more holistic re-integration of the mind-body-spirit as trauma is released and healing proceeds.