As we have different experiences, we create memories in different ways. Some experiences become narrative memories—ones where we can tell the story of what happened, and we get to choose when we bring up the memory. When we experience things that are very frightening, our brain’s ability to make narrative memories is bypassed. These traumatic memories become “somatic” memories, also known as “body memories.” We remember images, sights, sounds, smells, and feelings, but unlike narrative memories that are clear and sequential, somatic memories are fuzzy and vague, and they can interrupt us when we least expect it via nightmares, flashbacks or feeling like the scary event is still happening.
Somatic memories are created by trauma, defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience involving what we believe is an imminent threat to either ourselves or a loved one. These distressing reactions to trauma (nightmares, etc.) are a completely normal reaction to an abnormal situation. Once we’ve experienced trauma, our brains try to heal from it by converting these somatic/body memories into narrative memories. So, those nightmares and flashbacks are actually the brain trying to heal.
For many people, experiencing these painful and frightening memories triggers a fight-or-flight response. Our bodies are flooded with epinephrine and cortisol, our heart rate accelerates, our breathing becomes fast and shallow, our muscles tense, our pupils dilate, and we get tunnel vision so that we can fight or flee from the threat. As a byproduct of this boost in performance, our digestive tract shuts down and our ability to access the “logical” part of our brain (prefrontal cortex) gets blocked. This is survival mode, and it’s essential if we are in actual danger. However, as painful and frightening as our somatic memories can be, they are not an actual threat and the process of going into fight-or-flight mode in response to them prevents the brain from healing. We shove that memory back down and avoid things that remind us of the trauma, but the memories or feelings keep coming back.
We are learning more and more about the effects of trauma on our physical health and emotional wellbeing. We live in a time when we are safer than at any other time in human history, but we are also more frightened than ever. The news media constantly bombards us with bad news, which distorts our perception of reality. The media doesn’t report all the planes that didn’t crash or all the schoolchildren who went to school and returned home safely. It reports the unexpected, which is often frightening and can lead some people who have experienced trauma to become hypervigilant. When people remain in fight-or-flight mode, they are not able to heal.
There are numerous approaches to trauma treatment. In recent years, studies have shown that one of the best ways to help people manage trauma is to give them the tools they need to convert the somatic memory into a narrative memory and to reintroduce the passage of time back into the memory; in other words, to convert memories from something that feels like it’s happening all over again to something that happened and is over now. A scary memory that becomes a narrative memory can be sad and painful but it’s no longer debilitating.
As humans, we have more control over our bodies than our thoughts. As soon as someone tells you not to picture an elephant in a pink tutu, it’s hard to think of anything else. We can, however, control which muscles we tense and relax. As therapists, we teach our clients exercises that allow them to get into a calm and relaxed frame of mind—the opposite of fight or flight—that allows these somatic memories to convert into narrative memories. Once it’s a narrative memory, it becomes an on-demand memory and stops being intrusive. As we heal, the nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and feeling as if the trauma is still happening all stop.
So, if you have experienced something traumatic and are bothered by intrusive thoughts, nightmares, or flashbacks, consider making an appointment with a licensed therapist who can teach you the skills you need to convert that experience into a narrative memory. Some people are reluctant to see a therapist because they worry they will have to re-live past traumatic events, which can be a traumatic experience in and of itself. We now know that we don’t have to re-live the trauma to heal from it. A good therapist can help you learn to be in the moment, to heal from the past, and to feel calmer and more hopeful about the future.
Ben Anderson is the director of Behavioral Health at MCHC Health Centers, a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.