Working With Traumatic Memories

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You may have tried, when difficult memories come up, to console yourself that the thing troubling you is from the past. “No use dwelling on the past,” except it’s not so easy — the past colors our present

I distinctly remember similar advice given in the first week of the training program I wrote about these last few weeks. When the trainer was asked about difficult memories from the past coming up while we did movement explorations, the answer, was that we shouldn’t give much power to these memories by trying to construct a whole story from what had come up. The message I took was that the memory was something that it was up to me to somehow let these intrusive thoughts go, because they were of the past. The goal was to not let difficult memories influence my present experience. The catch was: while the memories were of the past, my nervous system was responding to them in the present.

Traumatic memories like I was having are often without a timeline or a full narrative – like flashes of images from a dream accompanied by uncomfortable thoughts and sensations in the present. I remember feeling the utter impossibility of finding any peace from telling myself these memories were simply of the past (as my teacher advised), when they had such massive power to them in the current moment.

Traumatic memories don’t feel like the past, because until we have worked with them, they are responded to in the nervous system as a threat that demands a response. Our nervous system responds with the same processes as if the event were happening right now. Our heart races, or are vision narrows, we feel an urge to run, strike out, or to shrink away or freeze up. We may feel a rush of energy or lethargic and numb to our experience.

​“These jumbled fragments…are perpetually being ‘replayed’ and re-experienced as unbidden and incoherent intrusions or physical symptoms. The more we try to rid ourselves of these ‘flashbacks,’ the more they haunt, torment and strangle our life-force, seriously restricting our capacity to live in the here and now.” Peter Levine, Trauma and Memory

The phrase I wrote in journaling, again and again in my 20’s and 30’s as I coped with all this difficulty was, “If anxiety can make me feel this bad, then my body/mind must have equal power for me to feel good if I can just find the right key to access it.” I am amazed when I think of it, for how long I tenaciously held onto this idea until I found my way, and even how sure I was of the truth of it even if I didn’t yet have the experience to confirm it or the road-map to get there. 

Happily, there are ways to work with traumatic memory so that it doesn’t have the same powerful hold on our present. I’m so grateful to have found Somatic Experiencing and Feldenkrais method, each in their way has been part of the key I was seeking both for myself and in my work my clients. With their emphasis on bringing curiosity to the intersection of body sensation, movement, thought and emotion. The most important questions in trauma healing according to Bessel Van Der Kolk, are, “I wonder what I’m noticing,” and “I wonder what will happen next.” SE and Feldenkrais offer powerful ways to ask those questions somatically. I look forward now to each day that I get to bring this work to support my clients on their paths to renegotiating trauma.

“Do not try to forget the past; it is impossible to forget the past without forgetting oneself at the same time. You may imagine that you have forgotten one or another unwanted detail, but it is stamped in some part of your body. Yet that past experience, awful as it may have been, can be used now to make your present a vital basis for a fuller, more absorbingly interesting future.” -Moshe Feldenkrais, Preface to The Potent Self

-Dan Rindler, GCFP, SEP