Body Memories: What is Trauma?
Experiencing a fire can cause trauma. But what can help? Image from wildforestfires.com.
If there’s one thing I hate, it’s somatic memory. It’s what makes your stomach ache, your throat close off, and your muscles clench when you remember something bad. It’s what makes you feel awful when you encounter stimuli that remind you of that bad thing. Maybe you remember a rape. Maybe you remember a pickpocketing. Maybe you remember being laughed at. Whatever the cause, it feels awful because your memory — your past — is impacting your present in an uncontrollable way.
Here’s a recent example:
Last year, running from the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado, I remember spending days wandering around in a daze, exhausted but unrefreshed by sleep, constantly fighting a cringing, sickly feeling in my stomach. It took several months before I felt normal again. I thought I’d finally recovered when the sight of campfire smoke no longer sent me into a spiral of fear. Then the Black Forest Fire broke out just last week, and the same sleeplessness and nausea returned. Even though I was less attached to possessions this time around — detachment as coping, anyone? — I was still a walking bundle of nerves.
Trauma happens all the time, whether through violent acts or surprise disasters from nature. While post-traumatic stress disorder has very specific diagnostic criteria, “trauma” refers to a much broader range of psychosomatic symptoms that can show up in the aftermath of an unusually stressful or threatening event. Here are a few:
- Inability to concentrate
- Unusual physiological sensations, like jangling nerves or nausea
- Constant worry
- Hyper-awareness of your surroundings
- Low energy
- Difficulty sleeping, including nightmares
- Numbing out, including using self-harm or substances
- Avoiding anything or anyone that might trigger a memory
Why are somatic memory and trauma showing up in a column on sexual politics around the world? Because this is what happens when people are harmed. This is how we, as humans, remember acts of violence and situations of terror. Even when our brains seem to have rationalized themselves into calmness, our bodies continue to carry the experiences forward. Thus, when we are reminded of the original situation — by a plume of smoke, a predatory glance, etc. — we are sent back into the spirals of fear that created these symptoms in the first place.
These symptoms can keep us safe, sometimes, but they can also interfere with our ability to be bold explorers of our worlds. So what can we do to cope? Here are some ideas:
- Engage with counseling, especially EMDR
- Use physically active techniques, in keeping with your level of ability, to help your body work through its symptoms
- Talk to other survivors, knowing that you each have your own experiences
- Accept your symptoms as being a natural part of the healing process
- Find a trauma-sensitive yoga or meditation class to re-connect with your body
- Write or draw a journal of your experiences
- Take time to focus on yourself and your own needs
Healing from trauma takes a lot of time and patience. It’s unpleasant and doesn’t happen overnight. But when you can recognize it, and nurture yourself in its aftermath, you can empower yourself to take on the world once again.