Dealing with body memories in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) recovery is one of the most difficult symptoms. Body memories differ from flashbacks. A flashback is a sudden, vivid memory that makes you feel like you are experiencing your trauma all over again. It’s a physical feeling of being there, not just a normal memory where you are recalling what has happened. However, body memories are another type of way we relive trauma that, while far less intense, are still upsetting. Body memories are not so easily identified; they can cause mental problems for years before you recognize them as a body memory.
Cause of Body Memories in PTSD Recovery: The Body Remembers
Around this time each year, my PTSD symptoms seem to worsen. Depression often sets in, and despair is right around the corner. I have a general feeling that something bad is going
to happen and that I am just waiting for some sort of disaster. I realized a number of years ago, that these feelings come up at about the same time the seasons change from summer to fall. It’s when the hot days start to cool off, that I find myself anxious, sad, and kind of paranoid. But this isn’t your normal seasonal affective disorder.
While I recognized the timing of my change in mood quite a while ago, it wasn’t until just recently that I realized why it was happening every October. The reason is that my body is remembering a traumatic time in my life, even when my mind is not.
The brain isn’t the only part of our bodies that remembers trauma. Every cell of our bodies has the capacity to remember trauma, even when our brain is not consciously thinking about it.1 So, while I am not specifically recalling the trauma that I suffered in autumns past, my body is. For me, that means my depression and anxiety come to the forefront, I want to sleep more, and I feel like isolating myself from the rest of the world.
Dealing With Body Memories in PTSD Recovery
There are things that I can do to deal with what my body is feeling (Relieve Symptoms of PTSD: Allow Your Body To Shake). These are the things that help me get through the tough times with body memories in PTSD recovery:
- Allow myself to feel the feeling. This isn’t easy. My first inclination when I am feeling a negative emotion is to shut it down, or stuff it away. I’ve learned that denying the emotion isn’t a healthy way to deal with unwanted feelings. Ignoring or avoiding the feelings is like putting a band-aid on a severed limb, it won’t work. The feelings will fester and bubble up until they are properly dealt with.
- Pay special attention to self-care. When I am dealing with any PTSD symptom, I have to remember to take care of myself. This means eating when I’m hungry, sleeping when I’m tired, and doing things that make me feel better. Sometimes just allowing myself to relax and do nothing is what is best for me — the laundry can wait.
- Talk to someone about it. While my tendency is to isolate, I know that if I express how I am feeling to someone else, it lessens the power that the negative feelings have over me.
- Tell myself the truth. Telling myself the truth is vital. Whether I am having a flashback, body memory, or just thinking about my traumas, I have to remind myself that I have survived and I’m no longer in that situation. It sounds simple, but it is profound in healing from PTSD to remember that no matter how devastating the trauma was, it’s over, and I survived.
Body memories, like every other PTSD symptom, can be healed. It takes a lot of self-awareness, a little bit of willingness and being honest with yourself, but it can be done.
1 Van Der Kolk, B. (2009, July 3). The Body Keeps the Score: Memory and the Evolving Psychobiology of Posttraumatic Stress. Retrieved October 11, 2015.