The Body Remembers

Many people, perhaps most, use their bodies to carry their intelligent, insightful heads around. However we store all our personal, social and family memories, the events and the traumas in our life experience, in our bodies, not just our minds.  Without support and guidance the embodied memories and shocks remain there and can slowly bring the system to a halt until acknowledged and re-membered. 

Our bodies have a deep intelligence and we can think of them as our teachers, our head their student.

This short article explores this subject from the perspective of embodied shocks and traumas and the somatic experiencing and systemic perspectives that soften and relieve them, so the body can be free, agile and available for full function and vitality.

| Embodied trauma

Most people think that ‘trauma’ is something that happens to other people. Other people who have been abused, involved in a terrible accident or something similar. But trauma is an integral part of the human condition and nobody escapes some experience of it. In fact much of the wounding through trauma happens as a child – when we are at our most vulnerable and least resourced. It’s impossible to be human and not be affected by your family of origin dynamics, the social and geopolitical dynamics, the patterns and events in life at home, and later at school and in other education and organisational systems. 

‘Traumatic’ events that happen to us as adults can have less effect because defences, mental processes, physical reactions and other ways of resolving challenges have been learnt. However, if the same incident occurs when we are a child, it has a powerful effect and if not processed and resolved it will stay in the body. As Peter Levine says “Trauma lives in the body, not the event”. Many of the dynamics that lie behind the challenges highlighted in the articles on this page emerge from wounding as a child, either directly or by becoming caught up in traumatic systemic dynamics.  Any kind of physical and/or emotional shock or loss can result in physical, embodied symptoms later in life. For example: chronic back pain, muscle, ligament and connective tissue spasm, hyperactivity and hypervigilance. The trauma is truly embodied, held in the body, and can also result in sleeping difficulties, fidgeting movements and other kinds of highly adrenalised states.
“Remaining silent about a family trauma is rarely an effective strategy for healing it. What’s hidden from sight often increases in intensity. The suffering will surface again, often expressing in symptoms in a later generation.”

Mark Wolynn

“Traumatic symptoms are not caused by the event itself. They arise when the residual energy from the experience is not discharged from the body. This energy remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreak havoc on our bodies and minds”

Peter Levine

Sensory sensitivity, such as hyper-sensitivity to light or noise, is also often an indicator of early unresolved shock.  These and other symptoms that result in a particular form of psychobiology all offer useful information to somatic specialists about the nature and quality of the wounding. Twitches, muscle spasm, pain or vigilance are often the body’s ways of holding unbearable emotions out of conscious awareness and emerge as a result of the psychological splitting that is the human survival impulse after trauma. Part is held in the memory but the larger part gets split off and held in the body which is left to contain the tension and so cannot fully relax. We may hold this tension for a lifetime in an attempt to keep the difficulty at bay and protect our sense of who we are without it.   Some of the common forms of childhood trauma include:

In the family system

  • Getting lost in a public place
  • Loss of control /getting out of depth in water
  • Physical punishment by parent/care takers
  • Events/shocks that happen in the night
  • Excessive teasing or bullying by siblings
  • Exposure to horror film or other frightening audio visual images (including TV news) at early age especially if contains sudden shocks
  • Exposure to sexual activity or threat of sexual contact
  • Anger or dangerous behaviour by a parent or guardian
  • Sudden loss, or death, of a pet
  • Witnessing or news of a family member having an accident or dying without opportunity to process emotions
  • Existential fear caused by illness or medical intervention

In the education system

  • Sudden move from one school to another with loss of friendships combined with shock of new system
  • Bullying and name-calling by other children
  • Bullying, shaming or physical punishment by teachers /other authority figures
  • Fear of personal safety for any reason
  • Shame/fear of standing up in front of peers to speak/sing or perform
  • Fearing the dark as a result of night time frights (i.e. at boarding school or whilst on a residential school trip)
  • Participant in or witness to an accident or lucky-escape whilst at/in school
  • Anger or dangerous behaviour by teachers/authority figures
  • Witnessing a major accident without being able to stop it

In social systems

  • Public shaming of any kind whilst in social system like a holiday location or at an event where unknown people are present
  • Being made aware of a shameful fact or secret that is associated with your family name/reputation
  • Being bullied or shamed because of a faith or creed that you followed
  • Rejection by a community or faith you were a part of or would have liked to be a part of
  • Dental interventions, particularly if acute pain whilst being held down and feeling helpless
  • A surgical operation, the trauma it was designed to repair, or the experience of shock at any stage of the process, including recovery
  • Watching an unstoppable accident or other traumatic event
The examples above are common and can be incidental if experienced as an adult, but for a child they are frightening and traumatic. They are also often coupled with shame. The shame of the event, the shame of the new and powerful emotions and the shame of perhaps having ‘done something wrong’ that children often assume. All these cause a shock in the mind that if not resolved soon inhabits the body which is required to hold the tension. People can hold these tensions for a lifetime and assume they have some purely physical issue. The embodied trauma often concentrates around any innate physical weakness or physical trauma, thus adding to the obfuscation and confusion around its true source. These events, if unprocessed as a child, end up embodied as physical symptoms but also as inner ‘life sentences’ like: “How/where can I be safe?”    “Where can I safely belong?”   “How do I stop something (else) awful happening?”

| Organisational trauma

Shocks and traumas can continue into adult life, often in business and organisational life. There can be a powerful impact in adults who were wounded in particular ways as children, especially as they often get attracted to organisational systems that invoke a repeat of the difficulty in a slightly different way. This dynamic can be at the roots of perfectionism. All patterns in systems repeat until the origin of the difficulty is seen, included and resolved. Left unattended the pattern will inhabit the body and find expression there.

Organisational system shocks

  • Bullying by peers or boss
  • Anger, controlling or dangerous behaviour by a peer or boss
  • Sexual harassment or threat of sexual contact
  • Witnessing an accident or death at work
  • Sudden ending of a team, division or organisation
  • A merger/acquisition managed in a disrespectful way
  • A disrespectful exclusion of an individual or group of individuals
An organisational system is always complex and can be seen, systemically, as much more complex than a family system. Organisational system cultures hold all the events (successes and failures), all the joinings and leavings (the joyful and the painful) and all their interactions with other systems.  However they also have the unresolved dynamics (strengthening and the weakening) of the family system of the founders – and then all the people who have subsequently belonged in that system. As a result of this complexity, so rarely included in the field of awareness of leaders or organisational consultants, trauma can become embodied at a system, team or individual level.

| Competence, success and shame

Everyone brings their wounding into their life and work. For some it is the root of their great (outer) success. Extreme competence, for example, is sometimes a sign of a strong defence mechanism at play. A defence that prevents the sufferer from accessing or feeling the emotional impact of the original loss, pain or shock and a defence that keeps the prospect of feeling shame away. Because shame is so often a by-product of a childhood trauma it can play a significant role in sustaining a never-ending cycle of defence from emotions, coupled with physical pain.  The best way of defending against shame is to be brilliant at something and to get very busy and very successful at doing it. However those same people may struggle to integrate or experience their own success, as its function is a mask for shame. This is sometimes in the mix when people feel what is often called ‘imposter-syndrome’.

Steven Spielberg has spoken about how the bullying he suffered as a school boy deeply informed his work, his career and his storytelling. Like others who have achieved great professional success he has used his wounding to serve his work and to process the feeling around the original traumatic experiences. His work is therapeutic, one might say, for him and the millions who watch his films. This is perhaps why his films touch so many: they acknowledge and begin to heal the childhood wounds in the storyteller and the viewer.
“The imprint of trauma is in the limbic system and in the brainstem: in our animal brains, not our thinking brains”

Bessel van der Kolk

“Natural forces within us are the true healers.”


Trans-generational trauma

Embodied trauma isn’t always as a result of your own past personal experience. The embodied pain, limit or difficulty can also be an expression of a dynamic that started before you were born or in another part of your family or other system.

All kinds of physical and emotional symptoms, particularly things like anxiety with no obvious source, cause difficulties with finding a safe place in systems or a challenge with finding your voice and being assertive.

These and other symptoms can be a sign of trans-generational dynamics that lie unresolved in the system. The still birth before you were born that your mother couldn’t face or your father’s abandonment by his father. Or perhaps there is an unresolved war or social trauma which impacted the family but was not talked about or processed. All these can lead to physical, mental and emotional difficulties and inertia.

| A vicious circle

Because the muscle system in the body braces against emotions which are unbearable it’s common that people with a lot of muscle tension, hypervigilance and other forms of sensitivity are the same people who don’t feel very many emotions as they may not have developed effective ways of tolerating or processing them. It is often a ‘vicious circle’ in which the individual feels trapped. People can spend their lives in this cycle, interpreting all their symptoms as musculoskeletal and orthopaedic problems requiring treatment, rather than symptoms of unresolved fear-response triggers. If the fear response is instead attuned to and addressed it can resolve the issue at source and break the cycle. Following pioneering work by psychologist Peter Levine and now many others the field of somatic experiencing has recently been developed to address this area.

“Trauma is the inability to stay in present time.”

Bessel van der Kolk

| Somatic experiencing

One of the ways of processing and disentangling from embodied shock, fear, shame and trauma is to process the feelings through embodied work, allowing the physical body to release and so alter our psychobiology. This is called body psychotherapy or somatic experiencing and there are a growing number of practitioners worldwide using a variety of ways to access and release embodied traumas and shocks. A part of many somatic practices is breathing. Breathing is generated by the same part of the brain that manages our survival behaviours: flight, fight, freeze. So, when we simply even notice our breathing, we are in touch with a primitive part of the brain, the part that, at the end of an outbreath, decides when we breathe in. As a result we can manage the flight/fight/freeze process by actively managing our breathing out.

Breathing in fills the lungs with oxygen and so triggers the Sympathetic nervous system. The Sympathetic nervous system is designed to support us in the fight/flight reaction when danger is present. There are many breathing practices which encourage us to breathe in deeply and, at a rational level, this appears to make sense as we all know we need oxygen. However we are also triggering our fight/flight responses time over time. Our parasympathetic system, the one that allows us to ‘rest and digest’, is activated by our breathing out.

So, when we exhale for slightly longer than we inhale, even by a few seconds, the Vagus nerve, which runs down the neck and through the diaphragm sends a signal to our brain to calm our system down. Somatic experiencing, which is a new and emerging field based on ancient wisdom about the human body that we have ‘forgotten’, can be effective in treating embodied trauma and shock. When combined with systemic constellations, whether in group or one-to-one settings, fresh paths can open up.  A systemic perspective and methodology combined with embodied processing can lead to lasting insight and a settling of the system.

This article was authored by John Whittington
Like other articles in this series it does not offer advice but stimulus for your own reflections. Each provides only an introduction into what’s possible in a systemic process. The thinking, observing and writing are always under development as the author continues to observe and articulate the dynamics in human relationship systems.

Links and resources

For all the articles on this site, please see this page.

For further reading with a systemic perspective please see the ‘Further Reading’ page, here.

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