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How Our Bodies Remember Trauma

Exploring somatics and the aftermath of abuse.

Source: Taojones/Pixabay

Our bodies remember trauma and abuse — quite literally. They respond to new situations with strategies learned during moments that were terrifying or life-threatening. Our bodies remember, but memory is malleable. The therapeutic practice of somatics takes these facts — and their relation to each other — seriously.

Imagine yourself surfing. Whatever your level of skill, a wave is a threat and an opportunity. Your body will respond, partly based on memories of other waves, other moments of danger or opportunity. Like life, your board and the ocean require certain things of your body: straddle, yoga pose, push up, stand, bend knees, arms at just the right angle. Maybe you're alone or maybe vying with other surfers for the same wave. You'll feel a bunch of emotions, and they will be embodied in your stance, in your muscles, your nerves, your breath.

Whether or how you ride the wave will be a result of how you embody your history. The same goes for other surfers vying for that wave. After all, we are social organisms. These are premises of somatics, a set of practices designed to help people coordinate their emotional, physical, and intellectual responses to the past into new ways of being.

In the words of Staci Haines, a leader in the field who trains practitioners, somatics is "resilience-based." The work begins with questions like "What do you care about?" or "What do you long for?" rather than, "What's wrong?" The emphasis is on embodying the qualities you care about, rather than fixing a problem.

Today's somatics builds on research and practice by Bessel van der Kolk, Peter Levine, Richard Strozzi-Heckler, and Pat Ogden. Levine, a psychologist and biophysicist, argues that "trauma is a fact of life" — one with an "intricate relationship to the physical and natural sciences." His portrait of healing can be a little rosy, particularly the self-help sections offering individuals strategies for personal healing. But his work was prescient and has been enormously influential.

Strozzi-Heckler draws on Aikido and bodywork traditions, making a case "to awaken the perceptive skills of sensing and feeling." The idea is to attune yourself to your body's rhythms — and the roles they play in everything from the making of emotion to decisions, relationships, and political commitments. If there is a doctrine in contemporary neuroscience and biology, its plasticity, the idea that organisms change continuously (if subtly), and they do it through relationships with environments and people. Somatics takes this abstract idea and translates into concrete practices.

In my book The One You Get, I write about my experience of early physical and emotional abuse — and witnessing a lot of it, especially men abusing my mother. When I wrote this, I felt pretty sure I'd just have to live with my body's response. And I do, but I've learned from somatic therapy that I have more options for how to live with it than I thought.

Here's a taste from the book:

I pause when I reach the porch. Stanley sees me. My current stepdad is prone on the couch, hairy in boxer shorts. The light from the TV blinks on his face and chest. His mouth is moving, like he’s talking to the screen. I open the door and walk in, looking straight ahead at my room. He stinks, of course, like musty sweat and alcohol. If I can walk past without provoking him, maybe we can skip what I know is about to happen.

“Hey kid, where ya been?” Walk.

“No hello for your old man. Would Mommy like that? Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,” she mimics my high kid’s voice. “F*ckin’ momma’s boy.”

“I’m here,” I mutter.

“What was that? Huh? Whatever. You missed the f*ckin’ game.”

“I hate football.” He knows that. Of course.

“I hate football,” He mimics. “F*ckin’ wuss. Go play with your Barbies.” He’s up, hairy and staggering toward me, red and grinning. “Commeer. Commeeer. You scared? I just want to talk to you.” He picks me up. My body is stringy and uncoordinated. He shakes it. I start to cry.

“Whatsamatter, kid? I didn’t do shit. Toughen up. Learn how to fight. Fight me. F*ck.”

“I hate you,” I say. He drops me. I try to stop my heaves. I rub my face on the floor to dry the tears. I struggle to compose my face. I can’t stand that contorted crying face.

“Look, you goddamn sissy ass f*ggot. You want a fight? I got the belt. Look.” He’s grinning but yelling too. Fun and fury are all mixed up in Stanley. “Nobody ever teaches you a lesson. Your old man’s a f*ckin’ loser. He’s not around to teach you anything. That’s your problem. I’ll teach you.” I feel his foot nudging me, like I’m a dead animal he wants to turn over. I freeze. If I remain still, it will eventually end. I know this from experience.

Stanley didn’t beat me up all the time. He mocked me constantly. He played a game that involved swinging me around in the air, against my will, while I cried for him to stop.

I don’t know how accurate the memories are. Time gelled them. Writing warped them. But my body remembers what's beyond articulation. I’ve had enough therapy to make emotional and intellectual peace with Stanley’s abuse. I even confronted him, in an oblique way, at my grandma's funeral. There was slight satisfaction in that.

It wasn’t until I was about 40 that I realized my body was on constant alert. If somebody cutting my hair nudges my head, it’s an effort not to resist. If a masseur or doctor tries to move my limbs or torso, I have to make a conscious effort to move my body the way I think it’s supposed to go. I often get it wrong. I can tell this perplexes people.

A couple of years ago, a man much larger than me confronted me in a physical way that swept my body right back into those rooms with Stanley. When I see this man, it’s like that frozen and contorted kid emerges from my cells and occupies my muscles and nerves. Bones too. The alert also means I’m pretty good at navigating traffic on a bike and at catching falling glasses before they break.

I got a little tired of all this. My body learned to freeze, like a threatened rabbit, and held the pose at the ready. Just in case. I started to look for some kind of physical practice that might loosen the fear out of my muscles. I landed on somatics, not at all sure what might happen.

Somatics is integrative, in more ways that one. It's about the integration of body, mind, and environment. It's also about the integration of science, politics, therapy, and personal life.

Somatics combines conversation, movement practices adapted from Aikido, meditation, bodywork, and breathing exercises. Early on, the practitioner I work with — Sumitra Rajkumar — instructed me to push her across the room, shouting "No!" Sometimes it feels like we're dancing. Sometimes I put my hand on her heart, or she puts hers on mine. Sometimes she gets me to make sounds so sheerly animal they scare me.

After one particular session of bodywork, I went home with an unstoppable sensation that my whole life was cycling through my nervous system. It was scary and debilitating. Of course, we just talk sometimes. Often, I leave feeling empowered, ready for the world, sometimes elated, other times rattled or disorganized.

Somatics is about a kind of personal healing, but with a collective social aim. If we develop new ways of being — new kinds of strength — we'll be in a better position to live our ideals, promote them in the world, and engage other people.

Staci Haines and Ng'ethe Maina build on and adapt the work of Strozzi-Heckler. Their essay "The Transformative Power of Practice" is as funny as it is wise. Their no-nonsense process makes somatics feel very human, not at all like some self-help movement:

The more we practice something the better we get at it. Our experience, of course, teaches us that sometimes we practice and we don't seem to get better, but in fact, we are getting better — we just may not be getting better at what we want. Each time we practice piano with a grumpy attitude, then we may get better at piano, but we will also certainly get better at being grumpy.

They argue that we all move through the world that with a set of "default practices," often developed in response to pain, fear, or trauma — but also that we can gradually shift toward more intentional practices. They make it very clear that somatics is no panacea. It takes time, commitment, and practice. Contemporary biology and neuroscience emphasizes our plasticity, but we are only so plastic. We change subtly, gradually. In the words of Haines and Maina:

Each time we do the practice, we are spending that moment of time interrupting the old habits and living the new pattern that we seek to put into place. Literally, as we practice new movements, internal conversations (reminding yourself of what it is you are committed to) and new emotional states, we are creating new neuronal pathways in the brain and new muscle memory in the body.

That's a pretty good description of what it's been like for me, practicing somatics for nearly two years now. My body feels more fluid, less reactive in scary situations. I've still got my default practices and my wounds, but I've got some intentional balance. I've developed the capacity to respond to the world a little more slowly, to feel what's happening a little more fully, to tolerate discomfort rather than fleeing it. When I get a massage or a haircut, I don't contract so much. I can let another person move my head or limbs. I feel more physically present in my teaching — like my body is more in synch with my intellect and compassion — working with my students as humans, all part of a collective relationship, building something together.

Basically, I've developed options and possibilities for how to feel, be, and act. The changes are subtle, but I've come to believe subtle changes are the most transformative.

Thank you to Sumitra Rajkumar for the excellent reading list. In the near future, I'll publish a follow-up interview with her, getting concrete, philosophical, and political about somatics.

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