Trauma and the Body
by Carmen Renee Berry
Reproduction in any form without the
express written permission of the author is prohibited.
"Will you please check Bennie and see why he's crying?" Kitty
complained to her daughter Ally, as the car sped up the freeway onramp.
"He's crying like there's something really wrong!" Reaching
around the infant car seat, Ally said, "Oh, he's got a blister on
Readjusting the seat belt, she cooed, "Is that better,
Bennie?" From the back seat Ally reported, "Looks like the sun
heated up the metal bracket on the car seat and it burned his skin. No
wonder he was putting up a fuss!"
If all of our experiences were positive, we'd have little need to
protect ourselves from harm. Unfortunately, many threatening events come
our way over the course of a lifetime, events that our bodies work hard
to anticipate, avoid or overcome.
Often we think of memory as a task for our brains alone. However, it is
critical to recognize that our bodies, as a whole, record and respond to
patterns of experience. In addition to our mental responses, our bodies
rally in self-protection through pulse rate, muscle tension, skeletal
structure, or neurological mapping. In fact, every experience you've had
involved body sensations that can be anchored in the tissue itself. And
your reaction to life's threatening experiences may also be recorded in
Memories of traumatic experiences are stored with "emotion-linked
chemicals in the body and the brain. When traumatized, a child is in a
highly emotionally charged state, causing certain hormones known as
neuropeptides or 'messenger molecules' to be released into the body when
the memory is being stored."1
Childhood trauma may be irregular occurrences in an otherwise routine
and safe existence. We've all had our share of falling off our bicycles
or underestimating the heat of a pan as our fingers were burned.
Children are curious, not always aware of the dangers of exploration,
and painfully discover just how high, how hot or how hard something
might be. The more unusual these accidents were for you, the more likely
you are to remember.
Some traumatic events are not accidental. Too many children are
traumatized through the intentional misuse or neglect of their
caretakers. All forms of child abuse are traumatic to the child's body.
Dr. Gael Goodman, a psychologist at the State University of New York,
writes, "child abuse involves actions directed against a child's
body. The violation of trivial expectations would probably not be very
memorable. The violation of one's body is."2
Sadly enough, those who are abused as children are rarely abused on
solely one occasion. Rather, abuse victims experience a pattern of abuse
that may continue into adulthood. If our needs were repetitively
ignored, our muscles may have routinely tightened to protect ourselves.
Our shoulders may have hunched, our toes may have clinched, our jaws may
have locked. If we repetitively held our breath in fear, the muscles
around our lungs may have developed shallow breathing patterns. These
repetitive responses to pain and discomfort often become ingrained in
Since this routine is often established at an early age, you may not
even be aware of what your body is doing, having grown so accustom to
the ritualized response. Psychologist, Robert Timms and Certified
Massage Therapist, Patrick Conners, write in their book Embodying
Healing, "The body and the mind together then enact some kind of
escape or avoidance routine that may become nearly automatic and may
require a large expenditure of time and physical or emotional
As an adult, you may no longer be aware of your intricate and
complicated pattern of response to threatening experiences, since this
self protective pattern was established years ago when you were a child.
But be assured that, when frightened, your body responds in self
protection - including the rate of your heart beat, the rhythm of your
breath, the sweat on your palms, the glance of your eyes, the tightness
of your stomach and the quickness of your thoughts.
I believe that God designed our bodies to record our experiences in an
organized fashion. I call this record a "body map." Each
touch, each response, each moment contributes to the development of our
body map. Patterns of experiences are noted. Odd, new or variant events
are remembered. No experience is wasted. From conception, you were able
to learn from your experiences and take the memory from one moment into
the next. In much the same way that a street map helps us find our way
around a new city, our body map can help us to "de-code" the
forces which have shaped us. Our body maps are reliable sources of
The challenge is to accurately interpret the body's special way of
remembering. Your body map can be misinterpreted. However, if time is
taken to properly understand the personal way your body stores
information, amazing wisdom can be gleaned. You can be pointed to
experiences of abuse, perhaps no longer available to the conscious mind.
Your body may speak of your need for nurturance or healing. Through
prayerful consideration, you can determine which path may best assist
you in addressing your needs. I believe that when we listen to our
bodies, we can sometimes hear the voice of God speaking to us.
Adapted from: Your Body Never Lies by Carmen Renee Berry, published by
PageMill Press, Winter, 1994.
1. Timms, Robert and Patrick Connors. Embodying Healing: Integrating
Bodywork and Psychotherapy in Recovery from Childhood Sexual Abuse
(Orwell: The Safer Society Press, 1992), p. 31. 2. Goodman, Gael S.
Cited in Heidi Vanderbilt's Incest: A Chilling Report, (Lear's, February
1992), p. 57. 3. Timms, p 24. Reproduction in any form without the
express written permission of the author is prohibited.
Go to Carmen
Berry's Articles in STEPS Magazine.