I wanted to update an article that I wrote some time ago about tissue memory. We hold the memories of trauma in body and this is a phenomenon that I see often in my practice.
Most of us think of trauma as an event such as a serious car accident, or a physical or sexual assault. These are definitely traumatic events. But the definition of trauma also includes situations such as repeated, long-term emotional abuse, or even over-training that can cause the body to lock itself into a specific, recognized pattern. As a competitive runner in the 1980s, I can definitely relate to the latter, as my body today is devastated by the effects of running 100-miles or more a week when I was in my late 20's and early 30's.
Noted acupuncturist Nicole Cutler, L. Ac. writes that "Traumas can be considered anything that keep us locked in a physical, emotional, behavioral or mental habit. Recovery from trauma is the process of the body finding balance and freeing itself from constraints. All too often, the recovery process is halted, preventing the traumatic occurrence from completing."
Eastern medicine and thought have long ago made the connection between our body and our mind. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) takes this idea one step further with the view that we are all connected to the earth and the surrounding universe. Most Native and aboriginal cultures recognize the mind / body connection as well as the deeper connection to the universe. Somehow we in the West fell off that wagon, and it’s only now that we’re trying to get back on.
Cutler identifies three examples of the body containing extraordinary memory capabilities that can be supported by Western science:
In his groundbreaking book, Healing Ancient Wounds – A Renegade’s Wisdom author John Barnes describes how injuries and trauma encountered in life affect our minds as well as our bodies. He describes how during treatment of the body, all kinds of feelings and sensations can be released. These sensations may include shaking, pain, tremors, and emotions. Barnes says that feelings are released by triggering what he calls “tissue memory.”
Our body responds to triggers brought on by our five senses: sight, smell, taste, sound, and touch. These are called “proprioceptive triggers.” Powerful images of tragic events such as those that occurred on September 11th, can bring you back to that moment. You may vividly recall exactly where you were and what you were doing. Songs or music may also produce triggers. For me, the old Glenn Miller classic “Moonlight Serenade” brings me back to my wedding day. All of the emotions, the excitement of that first dance with my wife come flooding back to me. More than 20 years later, the images, emotions and memories associated with that song are still as strong as they were on the day I was married. And all it takes is a song!
Similarly, when fascia (the densely woven connective tissue that surrounds every muscle, bone, nerve, artery and vein as well as all of our internal organs including the heart, lungs, brain and spinal cord) is released through touch, tissue memory can also be triggered. What is especially interesting about fascia is that it is not just a system of separate coverings. It is actually one structure that exists from head to foot without interruption. As such, each part of the body is connected to each other. This is one reason why pain may occur in other parts of the body, away from the area of the original trauma.
When an area injured during trauma (whether it is an accident, abuse, invasive surgery) is released, all of the feelings, emotions, and sensations that you experienced during the initial event may also be released. The same fear, the same pain, the same anxiety may resurface, just as intensely as when the original trauma occurred. At the subconscious level, this is what your body has been feeling all along. In order to fully heal, these sensations must be fully felt so that they can be released.
In her book, A Patient’s Guide to Understanding John F. Barnes Myofascial Release, physical therapist Cathy Covell writes:
"Fully feeling these sensations is easy to say, but not always easy to do. Remember that the sensations can feel as intense as they did during the initial trauma itself. Many times these sensations that occurred during the trauma were overwhelming, which is why we didn’t release them in the first place. One of our self-defense mechanisms that automatically take over when we are overwhelmed with pain, fear, etc. is to leave our body. What I mean is that we can become completely numb and stuff the pain and emotions. It can seem just as overwhelming when the tissue memory is triggered again."
A sensitive therapist, within the therapeutic environment, can help a client to fully connect mind and body and the client to safely release the sensations associated with the trauma. It is only through this kind of release that you can truly heal. Unless you completely let go, your body continues to experience the trauma at a subconscious level. If the body will not release, restrictions can form in the fascia, creating chronic pain and making it worse over time. The added stress on your body may also compromise your body’s immune system, which can lead to other forms of illness.
According to Cutler, there are three things necessary for the body to release stored trauma:
So, how does a therapist unlock these memories held within the physical body? Cutler states that there are techniques called "myofascial unwinding" that can help to locate and physically free "the restrictions in muscle and surrounding fascial tissue that house traumatic memories. As a skilled therapist holds and unwinds these tissue tensions, memories may surface and release, causing the body to spontaneously "replay" body movements associated with the memory of the trauma. This release initiates relaxation, unlocking the frozen components of the nervous system. Such a shift marks the reconnection of the brain with the tissue housing the trauma, allowing transformation and healing to ensue."
Within the therapeutic environment, with a competent and sensitive therapist, you have the ability to release and clear the pain and trauma of the past. When we fully let go of the pain of our past, we can embrace life in the present, and experience the love and beauty of living in the moment.
Have you ever experienced any kind of emotional release during bodywork? If so, how did the therapist handle it? If you have experienced emotional release during bodywork or massage, has it helped you reconcile and move past the trauma? Please share your stories.
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