How Trauma Gets Stored In The Body (Somatic Memory & Nervous System)
Nearly everyone experiences trauma at some point in their lives. Trauma is the result of an overwhelmingly stressful event which we don’t have the resources to process. While some eventually do acknowledge and process their trauma, others carry trauma with them.
The energies of unprocessed trauma can indeed become trapped in the body where they negatively impact our physical and mental health, relationships and behaviors. Meditation can help release trauma, although it may not work exactly as we think it does.
When faced with real or imagined danger, the body responds by activating the sympathetic nervous system. This triggers the release of hormones which propel us into fight, flight or freeze mode. When not given the opportunity to discharge, this stressful energy remains. The long term presence of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline also changes our brains.
The amygdala, where the stress response originates, becomes overactive. This makes us less capable of meeting new stressful incidents in a healthy manner. A state of hyperarousal or hypervigilance becomes our new normal. Even the smallest stressors, completely unrelated to the original trauma, can activate a trauma response.
This constant over-reactivity to what others might think is normal or not a big deal can lead to anxiety, depression and a sense of separateness, exacerbating our stress. Trauma stored in the body also affects our physical health.
Studies find those with PTSD have shortened telomeres. Telomeres are short caps at the end of chromosomes that protect our DNA from damage. As telomeres shorten, we become more vulnerable to cognitive aging, cancer and heart disease.
In this way, trauma is stored in the body, as evidenced in our behavior, our brains, and our physical health.
Releasing Trauma With Meditation
Trauma that’s trapped in the body can rise to the surface any time we’re triggered by stress. A trauma response is both emotional and physical. We might sweat, cry, shake, or experience shortness of breath, increased heart beat, upset stomach or pain.
Stored trauma can also rise to the surface in moments of quiet introspection, including during meditation. No longer distracted, we at last notice the trauma, uncomfortable emotions and memories that have been inside us all along. In this sense, trauma ‘releases’ during meditation.
For this reason, some say meditation can make trauma worse. It’s true that becoming aware of once-hidden trauma can be uncomfortable and painful. But although it can hurt, acknowledging our pain is a necessary part of the healing process. If we take the perspective that trauma must surface to be released, we can welcome it, acknowledge it, work with it and let it go.
To foster this healthy perspective, it helps to meditate in a safe place, with a trauma-informed guide who can offer us tools to help us process what’s arising. The following tips can help.
- Meditate in a safe environment
- Meditate with a trauma-informed guide
- Stay grounded by meditating on the body, versus thoughts and emotions
- Practice consistently, but for shorter periods of time
- Stay within your window of tolerance
- Focus on the present moment, versus progress or goals
- Combine meditation with other helpful therapeutic practices
Continuing with our meditation practice can also heal the body. Meditation brings us back to a resourced state of balance by down-regulating cortisol and adrenaline. With consistent practice, the amygdala is minimized, preventing future over-reaction. In addition, meditation increases the length of our telomeres, protecting us from the damaging physical effects of stress.
By practicing patiently, with great care, and in the right environment we can transform the resurfacing of trauma into an opportunity to release that which we’ve been carrying for so long.