An Introduction to Somatic Memory
Somatic memory sheds light on the idea that stress and trauma can be stored in the body, not just the mind. Learn more about somatic memory and its relationship to trauma-related disorders here.
Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC
August 17, 2023
Table of Contents
In his wildly popular book, “The Body Keeps the Score,” trauma expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk explained how trauma affects not only our minds but also our bodies. People seemed to be incredibly fascinated by this concept (the book spent 27 straight weeks in the number one position on the New York Times Nonfiction Best Seller List), showing the public’s interest in understanding how chronic stress and trauma impact mental and physical well-being.
One aspect of this mind-body trauma interplay is somatic memory: the concept that our mind and body both store trauma or chronic stress, which can manifest as physical pain, discomfort, and unease. Somatic therapy aims to address chronic stress and trauma through the body and mind, which Kolk’s book so aptly brought to the center of the public mental health conversation. Tapping into our somatic memory and working through different bodily exercises and therapeutic approaches, for instance, makes relief possible, according to somatic therapy. Learn more about somatic memory and its relationship to mental health, chronic stress, and trauma here.
What is somatic memory?
The word somatic means “of the body.” As such, somatic memory refers to the lingering sensations of discomfort and unease that remain in the body after a stressful or overwhelming experience. Thus, somatic memories are physical in nature and can manifest in a wide variety of different ways. The concept of somatic memory suggests that our physical experiences are not isolated from our emotional and mental states but are instead intrinsically connected.
A person’s somatic memory often exists outside of their conscious awareness. These memories can be externalized subconsciously in the body through certain movements and postures or generalized physical feelings of unease and discomfort—all unique to each individual. In this way, while the mind has processed the events surrounding a period of chronic stress or trauma, the body still holds on to the stress and unease.
How are somatic memories formed?
We use our senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch) to engage with the world during a traumatic event.
We register parts of what we see, hear, taste, smell, and touch (as well as associated thoughts and feelings) during this trauma in our brains.
Encoded information is stored in short-term or long-term memory—a process that’s often done subconsciously for traumatic events.
Memories can be retrieved consciously or subconsciously, a process known as implicit memory when it’s the latter (usually connected to trauma).
We experience physiological, cognitive, or emotional reactions upon retrieval, which can happen consciously or subconsciously. Traumatic reactions are usually subconscious.
To better understand how somatic memories are formed, it is helpful to explore how we create and later come to relate to our memories in a general sense. The following explanation of how our memory works highlights the somatic, or physical, nature of how we relate to the world around us and recall past experiences. Here’s how memory works in general:
- Observation: We engage with the world with our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch.
- Encoding: We register parts of what we see, hear, taste, smell, and touch in our brains. We may also register our associated thoughts and feelings.
- Storage: This content is encoded and may be stored in our short-term or (later) long-term memory.
- Retrieval: We retrieve memories both actively and passively, consciously and subconsciously.
- Reaction: When memories are retrieved, we experience physiological, cognitive, or emotional reactions. Again, these processes can be conscious or subconscious.
One of the most important aspects of this process, as it relates to somatic memory, is the idea that some memories are encoded, stored, retrieved, and reacted to consciously, known as explicit memory, while other memories go through the same process subconsciously, known as implicit memory.
So much of our somatic experience is implicit. For example, take a moment to tune into your breathing. Are your breaths deep or shallow? Now tune into your shoulders. Are they tense or relaxed? Before bringing awareness to these aspects of your physical experience, you most likely had very little conscious connection to the sensations in your body.
Traumatic events, specifically, are often stored as implicit memories. Additionally, the recollection and reaction to these memories often exist outside of conscious awareness. This type of memory storage, retrieval, and reaction can be seen as a protective mechanism, as it is a way for the traumatic event not to exist at the forefront of a person’s consciousness.
Unfortunately, without conscious awareness of our somatic memories, we cannot fully move through and process them. In this way, our somatic memories and their effect on our physical and emotional experiences can feel out of our control. Somatic therapy aims to bring attention and awareness to the body, to the part of ourselves that functions implicitly, and reclaim the connection between our body and conscious mind to process these experiences better.
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Flight, fight, freeze, and somatic memory
When faced with a challenging, stressful, or traumatic situation, our body goes into its fight, fight, or freeze response—the body’s natural mechanism for keeping us safe. When we experience a certain level of stress, the body perceives that danger is present. Blood pressure and heart rate increase, vision becomes more focused, and systems not essential for survival (like the digestive system) don’t work as well. This is the body’s way of preparing you to either fight the threat or run from the danger.
Proponents of somatic therapy believe that for human beings, the continuation of symptoms related to stress and trauma can be attributed to the body’s inability to move through the course of its survival instinct fully. Ideally, the stress response is time-limited and self-regulating. In other words, our survival mechanism kicks us into high gear, helps divert us from danger, and then downshifts back to normal within a reasonable amount of time.
For advocates of somatic therapy, the only way for this process to be complete is to release the somatic energy stored in the body. This energy is held in our somatic memory. Somatic therapies aim to release this energy and bring the body and mind back to a place where it no longer feels threatened.
Somatic memory and trauma
Trauma is an emotional and physiological response to a distressing situation that breaks a person’s sense of security. Traumatic events often involve a direct threat to a person’s life and safety but can also include any situation that leaves the person feeling overwhelmed or emotionally distressed.
Everyone’s response to a given traumatic event is unique. Some people can naturally recover in time, while others may continue to experience the negative emotional and physical effects of the traumatic experience long after its occurrence. The continuation of these emotional and physical symptoms may constitute a mental health diagnosis. The DSM-5, the book providers use for clinical diagnoses, lists the following as trauma and stressor-related disorders:
- Reactive attachment disorder (in children)
- Disinhibited social engagement disorder (in children)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Acute stress disorder
- Adjustment disorders
- Prolonged grief disorder
- Unspecified trauma and stressor-related disorder
Kolk explains in his book, “We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present.” In effect, how an individual experiences life after a traumatic experience is changed both physically and mentally long after the event has occurred.
Some of these changes are conscious, while others are not. Somatic memories represent the physiological changes that occur due to the experience of overwhelming stress. While many therapy modalities focus on the cognitive effects of trauma, somatic therapy offers a more holistic, mind-body approach to understanding and confronting mental health challenges such as those related to trauma.
Goals of somatic therapy
The goal of somatic therapy is twofold. The first step is to bring awareness to body areas with negative somatic memory. This is done through various mind-body techniques that help people bring attention to their implicit sensory experience in the present moment. As mentioned, we don’t usually take time to check in with the body in this way, but it is a skill that can be learned with practice.
The second part of somatic therapy is to engage in mind-body exercises that release the tension of the negative somatic memory. These exercises may include breath work, stretching, meditation, visualization, massage, grounding exercises, dance, and sensation awareness work.
Somatic therapy is often described as a bottom-up approach instead of a top-down one. In other words, instead of focusing on thoughts and feelings in the mind to address an individual’s mental health challenges (the formula for traditional talk therapy), somatic therapy focuses on the body to improve the mind.
Modern somatic therapy began in the 1970s and has continued to grow in size and influence since then. Two of the movement’s major figures—Thomas Hanna who created the concept of somatics, and Peter Levine, who developed a somatic therapy called Somatic Experiencing—have helped create a major paradigm shift in how we conceptualize and treat symptoms related to chronic stress and trauma. Somatic therapy is often used to treat people who suffer from the effects of chronic stress and trauma, but it can also help address numerous other mental health challenges in which there exists a certain level of dysregulation in the nervous system.
Somatic memory and trauma work at Charlie Health
If you or someone you love is dealing with unresolved trauma, Charlie Health may be able to help. Our virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) offers support to adolescents, young adults, and families dealing with complex mental health challenges, including trauma.
Our IOP combines trauma-informed supported groups, family therapy, and individual therapy. The professionals at Charlie Health are trained in a wide variety of treatment modalities. Somatic therapeutic techniques are just one of the many tools that can be used to help address your mental health challenges.
Addressing your somatic memory and working through somatic exercises can help build resilience and bring you one step closer to better mental and physical well-being. Fill out this short form to start your healing journey today.