Many things connect humans around the world. One of them is our reaction to stressful situations: we either flight, fight, or freeze. Just recall the last time you encountered a disruptive event, whether you fell from the bike or witnessed a burning quarrel between your parents. Your mind and body at this time join up to evoke certain reactions.
Your reactions may be to not move, or escape to your room to avoid the argument, and simultaneously experience bodily reactions such as shivers. These reactions can be accompanied by emotional reactions such as feeling sad or angry, as this is how your body reacts to stressful events.
Once the disruptive event takes place, and everything goes back to normal, most of us find ways to cope with experiencing the disruptive event, however in some instances when the event is overwhelming, your mind and body become stuck in the past flight/fight, or freeze responses, and you can’t do anything about it. You desire so badly to deal with these feelings. Yet, it feels like you’re the slave to these reactions.
If this does ring a bell to you, then it’s time to address these trapped memories linked to the disruptive event, or in other words, somatic memory.
Today I’ll shed light on the introduction to somatic memory and efficient ways to heal it.
What is a somatic memory?
Somatic memory is the retention of physical sensations, movements, and bodily responses associated with experiencing a disruptive event. These memories are not necessarily conscious and are stored not only in the mind but also the body.
These memories may be subconscious and can affect the body through certain troublesome or irksome movements and postures leading to discomfort. If your mind has not processed your emotions connected to disruptive event/s, the body can still hold on to these past memories (1).
There are five ways through which memories are formed:
- Reaction (1).
This is when you engage with the world through the five major senses: touch, sight, feel, smell, and hear.
You record everything you see, hear, touch, smell, and the associated thoughts and feelings.
All the things you observe and register are stored in your memory (short-term or long-term).
You recall the memories both consciously (explicit memory) and subconsciously (implicit memory).
After retrieving memories, you experience certain physiological, cognitive, or emotional reactions, and these can occur consciously or subconsciously.
Different experiences, associated with traumatic events, are mostly stored as implicit memories. This means that your body can recollect and react to these memories subconsciously, meaning you’re not consciously aware of them.
Now let’s get back to the introduction to this article where I highlighted that after experiencing certain disruptive events, your body prepares you for a certain reaction. And in some cases, despite the absence of this terrible situation, your body and mind are still in a state of lingering protective reaction. Surely, some people can naturally recover from experiencing disruptive situations, while others continue to experience the negative emotional and physical effects of the event, long after its occurrence (1). If left unaddressed, this may lead to mental health problems, such as:
- Acute stress disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Prolonged grief disorder
- Adjustment disorders
- Complex trauma, and complex traumatic stress (12).
Additionally, unresolved somatic memory can manifest through digestive issues, fatigue, sleep issues, chronic pain, and other physical sensations (10). Seek professional help if these mental or physical symptoms are impairing your well-being, as well as ruining your relationships with others.
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What are somatic flashbacks?
Somatic flashbacks are involuntary and can be vivid. These may include re-experiencing both physical and emotional senses, making you relive the past disruptive event as if it’s happening in the present time. It comes in different forms: you could witness actual visual images as if you were watching your event on a TV show, and other individuals keep facing flashbacks via certain sounds, smells, or other sensations (9).
Interestingly, somatic flashbacks occur due to unresolved memories/emotions being stored in the facia, muscles, and nervous system (9). That’s why the body can be easily triggered by external stimuli such as smell and sound.
Experiencing a somatic flashback may include:
- Intrusive thoughts
- Physical reactions, like sweating or nausea (9).
- You may even experience panic attacks and intense fear (9).
Now, I’m sure you’re tired of the theory and would desire some practical examples.
You witnessed a car accident some time ago, and one day you stroll around the block and notice a car speeding while the driver honks frantically. You may experience somatic flashbacks evoking the past memory and overwhelming feelings of fear from the past.
This could happen without seeing an accident occur. Instead, hearing the honking of the car could make you experience somatic flashbacks.
Somatic flashbacks occur when the body re-experiences the physiological and sensory elements associated with a past disruptive event. These flashbacks are a manifestation of somatic memory being triggered, leading to a reactivation of the body’s responses as if the disruptive event were happening again in the present moment (10).
Additionally, a person recalling a memory is aware that this is just a memory from a past event. With flashbacks, you will feel that the past situation resurrected, making you relive it again in the present (11).
What is a traumatic memory?
A traumatic memory is the result of disruptive events: violent events such as kidnapping, terrorist attacks, war, domestic abuse, and rape; natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis (5); and trauma refers to the emotional response to experiencing such an event (13)
Simple objects, like a photograph, or certain events can evoke traumatic memories. If left unaddressed, these intrusive memories may continue for decades, as the person adjusts to the situation affecting the mental, physical, and social well-being of a person.
Several psychotherapies have been designed to support individuals to process and integrate traumatic memories, reduce distressing symptoms, and promote overall mental and physical well-being. (14)
What does it feel like to remember a repressed memory?
Let’s discover the concept of repressed memory first. Sigmund Freud theorized this idea while working on psychoanalysis. He believed that memory repression is about defending yourself in the face of traumatic experiences (4). Still, the theory of repression has not been proven and remains controversial.
Often, repressed memory is associated with situations of trauma such as child abuse, when an adult decides to block the memory of being abused in a family as a child.
You already know that all kinds of negative experiences evoke certain reactions. People use various ways to deal with repressed memories:
- some choose to detach from the memory by blocking it
- some decide to deny the memory
- some opt to forget the memory
Some may develop Post-traumatic disorder (PTSD), after experiencing a distressing event. Symptoms may include:
- Losing hope about the future
- Feeling distant (detached) or losing interest in others
- Being unable to make decisions
- Getting startled easily at sudden noises
- Feeling on guard and alert all the time
- Facing relationship problems, both at work or personal life
- Avoiding people, places, and things related to the event (6).
Physical reactions may appear as well. You may experience:
- upset stomach
- trouble eating
- severe headaches
- not keeping up with regular health care (6).
Lastly, emotional reactions take place. You experience versatile negative emotions, such as:
- sadness, agitation
- inability to trust others therefore detaching from people
- shock and irritation
- fear, nervousness, and helplessness (6).
If you experience these symptoms and they impact your daily functioning, contact a mental health provider for guidance. Remember, a good therapist will be able to minimize further harm and avoid re-traumatization.
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How are semantic and episodic memories different?
Semantic memory entails general knowledge about the world, including facts and beliefs (3). For example, you know what a smartphone is and how to use it. You know that if you hang wet clothing in the sun, it will dry out.
Episodic memory is about remembering certain events and experiences from the past, both positive and negative. Episodic memories enrich your life with a sense of history and a shared history with others (3). A good example would be when you watch a funny video on your smartphone, you remember who was in the video and what was said in the video.
Yet, there is something that connects these two memories: they are part of the explicit memory. It means you remembered something consciously and intentionally.
How do you heal somatic memory?
Healing somatic memory is crucial for your overall well-being. Versatile Somatic Healing Techniques are designed to heal the effects of past disruptive events. Somatic therapy exercises are based on somatic healing techniques.
Somatic experiencing is a type of somatic therapy that aims to treat trauma-related diagnoses, like PTSD. Peter Levine developed SE in 1970 stating that traumatic experiences cause physical symptoms and working with the body can help heal it (8).
Instead of focusing on your emotions, you should pay attention to your physical sensations (stomach pain, speedy heart rate, or tense body).
By doing this Somatic Bodywork you more clearly observe the physiological effects of trauma and learn to deal with them.
The common somatic techniques can help a person process their unresolved emotions and/or cope with physical sensations, these include
- grounding exercises allowing you to focus on the present moment
- touch or massage bodywork
- somatic therapies such as somatic experiencing therapy, Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), Hakomi, etc.
- somatic movement (7).
Is dancing your cup of tea? If so, taking dancing classes or simply moving to your favorite song in private could help your body release tension and relax. Also helpful would be a 28-day Somatic Exercise for Trauma Relief.
Please note that dealing with somatic memory on your own may be harmful to your well-being. The best decision for you, in this case, would be to talk to a licensed therapist.
Can you suddenly remember a repressed memory?
Yes, you can remember repressed memories. It usually comes in the form of small bits and pieces of a memory. We keep the memory away from conscious awareness, but it may easily come back in dreams, flashbacks, or triggers.
Can you forget childhood trauma?
Yes, as not remembering or forgetting trauma is one of the coping mechanisms people choose to live a normal life. Additionally, one of the main reasons for forgetting your childhood trauma lies in the possible connection between childhood trauma and memory loss.
Is it healthy to have repressed memories?
This is a complex and debated topic within the field of psychology. Some people repress their memories to cope with the effects of past traumatic events, as a protective mechanism. Still, the long-term impact may have a damaging effect on your mental, physical, and emotional health.
Why do I replay bad memories in my head?
It’s a common thing to replay bad memories because your brain gives more importance to negative experiences. That’s why intrusive memories may constantly interfere with your mind. They had a major impact on you or were vividly significant, and it’s hard for you to easily break up with them. It’s best to seek professional help if these memories disrupt your daily routine.
The Bottom Line
In this article on the introduction to somatic memory and efficient ways to heal it, I shed light on the notion of somatic memory, its effects, and the best healing strategies.
Somatic memory is the retention of physical sensations, movements, and bodily responses associated with experiencing a disruptive event..
Untreated somatic memory can manifest through digestive issues, fatigue, insomnia, chronic pain, and other physical sensations. Additionally, you’ve unveiled the notions of somatic flashbacks, traumatic memory, and semantic and episodic memories.
Somatic flashbacks re-experience both physical and emotional senses, making you relive the past disruptive event as if it’s happening in the present time. A traumatic memory is the result of disruptive experiences, such as violent events or natural disasters. Semantic memory entails general knowledge about the world, including facts and beliefs. Episodic memory is about remembering certain events and experiences from the past (the who, when, and what), both positive and negative.
If past disruptive events are interfering with your well-being, you should consult a licensed therapist who introduces efficient ways to heal somatic memory.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- An Introduction to Somatic Memory (2023, charliehealth.com)
- Biology: Traumatic memories (2023, handwiki.org)
- How Trauma Impacts Four Different Types of Memory (2017, naadac.org)
- Is It Possible to Repress Trauma? (2022, psychcentral.com)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (2022, medlineplus.gov)
- PTSD: National Center for PTSD (ptsd.va.gov)
- Somatic experiencing – effectiveness and key factors of a body-oriented trauma therapy: a scoping literature review (2021, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Somatic experiencing therapy: What to know (2023, medicalnewstoday.com)
- Somatic Flashbacks: How to Deal With Its Disturbing Impacts? (2022, theholisticpath.org)
- Somatic Flashbacks: What You Need To Know (2023, charliehealth.com)
- What are flashbacks, and what do they feel like? (2023, medicalnewstoday.com)
- Understanding the Impact of Trauma. (2014, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/)