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 his leg!"
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 your body.

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 our bodies.

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 resources."3

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 information.

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.