What does a body remember?

I have recently been intrigued by the concept of body memory, finding it to be a very real concept that can be a focus of therapeutic healing.  I was reading a post that talked about how a body can remember a trauma or memory that may have happened many years ago, but that is somehow still trapped in the tendons, muscles, and morsels of a person’s body.  What does this mean for a person’s mental well-being, and how does this experience shadow the mind-body connection that is so often used in therapy?

As I write a lot about body image, bodily harm, mental anguish that is projected onto the body, and other body-centered topics, I was curious about how eating disorders, emotional eating, and other types of body-involved mental disorders are connected to body memory.  I have heard accounts of survivors of sexual abuse where the survivor talks about their muscles being tensed up and they “know” that there is emotional pain lingering in that part of their body.  Getting a massage can be traumatic for someone who has had emotional pain felt in their body; I have learned about a new form of massage called Trauma Touch Therapy, which is a method used to release body memories in a safe way.

Bodies that are affected by and/or recovered from eating disorders may hold some of these same memories — of pain, shame, guilt, grief, loss.  As a person heals emotionally, cognitively, and physically from a trauma — whether it is abuse by another, abuse by an eating disorder, or emotional anguish that results in such things as cutting — the body will hold some of those memories of times past in its tendons, whether it is as a protective mechanism against further trauma or, I wonder, because the body has coped with this memory for so long that it does not know how to let it go.

As we work through processing our issues, past and present, in therapy, does emotional release follow or precede with body memory release? Is body memory a therapeutic tool to help us cope and remember what we have survived, or is it a remembrance of traumas of times past that we just cannot let go?

This makes me think of war veterans or other victims who must get a limb amputated due to injury or illness.  Research shows that the person’s body remembers that limb as if it is still attached for years to come.  The body never really forgets.  The effects of post-traumatic stress on the mind and body are intensifying as more people go to war, as the eating disorder epidemic increases, and as traumatic experiences that we may not even remember show up in body memory sensations.

As a therapist, this reiterates the importance of taking care of our minds and our bodies and remembering that they are connected in such deep ways.  Yoga, exercise, breath-work, meditation, and mindfulness are all ways of highlighting the mind-body awareness to promote healing.