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Q53: Do human bodies act as archives of trauma?

Prompted by an article recently published by Mada Masr raising “52 questions about the archive,” I was inspired to add to the list question 53: Do human bodies act as psychological archives of trauma? Does this archive carry the possibility of a map for healing if the compass for reading such a maze is safely triggered? Does this always require a conscious process?

The questions I want to raise emanate from a position of curiosity. They are not the reflections of a trained therapist, nor are they embedded in learned psychological jargon. They arose through my own journey to discover anchors to greater self-awareness.

Does the body have a memory?

Have you ever found yourself, while searching for that small shop you visited two months ago, pausing at the intersection, wondering which side of the street it was on, and then feeling like it was on one side, and it was? In this case, your body took the lead. It was triggered to recall a particular piece of information from its memory.

Some scientists and psychologists have hypothesized that memory is not stored solely in the brain, but in other areas of the body, a concept they refer to as “cellular memory” or “body memory,” the difference being whether or not the information is retained in every cell of the body or in the organs of the body. Such an imprint can be seen, they argue, in cases of “phantom pain,” where the sensation of pain is experienced in a part of the body that has been amputated or removed. Critics of this theory argue, however, that this is due to muscle memory or the remnants of hormones in parts of the body. Furthermore, there are theories among psychologists that support the idea of the body as a kind of sponge for repressed feelings, particularly in cases of trauma from chronic, long-term or repeated abuse.

Last year, I was introduced to the book The Body Keeps the Score (2015), by psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, while studying for a special diploma. The main focus of the book — to find one’s rhythm and connection between body and mind — resonated with me, providing me with an opportunity to notice the chronic pain at the bottom of my back and the heat I often experience in my fists when I feel particularly oppressed by things in my day-to-day life. It was also a chance to view my body as an archive of all that has happened to me, particularly formative incidents when I was a child. I was encouraged to begin a process of reconnecting with my body, of exploring possibilities for healing, and of recognizing my story beyond what my mind chooses to remember.

Courtesy: Rawand Issa

I wish I had time to translate this book into Arabic, as it helped me redefine the notion of “trauma.” Commonly associated with experiences of conflict, war and abuse, the term has often been limited to symptoms that can be traced, and the formulation of strategies for recovery. But, as I was reading, I realized that early experiences of blaming, shaming, abandonment, loss and experiencing or witnessing violence leave an impact on the body, inform the ways in which we develop survival skills, and may lead to patterns of behavior that are repeatedly traumatic. Survivors of trauma often relive their experiences, drawing from a Pandora’s box of behavior archived within the body.

Van der Kolk gives a basic example of how the body psychologically and physically archives trauma from experiences in childhood and manifests them in adult life. Take a young child whose caregiver looks at him or her in a moment of anguish and says, “Stop crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about.” This early memory of not feeling safe and having to subdue or hide one’s feelings can lead to the pursuit of activities that numb the body in adult life — substance use, for example, or forcing a feeling of physical pain, such as cutting, or lead to the punishing of oneself — for example by withholding food or overeating. These are just examples of some of the ways in which the body stores messages of threat or danger and manifests them physically and emotionally later in life. Some other common physical signs of trauma that psychiatrists have noticed include paleness, lethargy, fatigue, poor concentration, panic attacks or a racing heartbeat, among many others.

What might your body as an archive include?

When we consider the archive, it often triggers images of papers, files and folders, organized according to a certain kind of system, and ordered in terms of perceived importance. But what kinds of files are kept by the body, and what determines the information that is retained or not?

Motivational lectures often end with the urge to “listen to your body.” Previously, I didn’t really relate to what this phrase means, and I was scared to open a Pandora’s box of emotions and memories with no final destination in sight. But undertaking a number of mindful practices has helped me to access and navigate the stories archived on the shelves of my body.

At the age of 27, I found myself standing in the street in a foreign country, crying about being lost. I’m still not sure why this moment was so dramatic, as I had lived in three different countries alone as a young adventurer. But still, I remember my whole body freezing and being unable to move my legs for almost three minutes before my body resumed its “normal” function. Years later, I recalled this incident, and it triggered several other traumatic experiences of “being lost” from my early childhood, along with some unresolved conflicts and repressed feelings that accompanied them.

At the age of three, I was told by my family that I was lost while they were performing pilgrimage. This story has remained in the family archive as a funny tale, particularly when I’m teased about the fact that I don’t look like my two brothers and sister.

At the age of 10, I was kidnapped, and, after a long night, the details of which I can’t until this moment fully remember, I was brought home again safely. As a child, with no tools to narrate these two incidents myself, I registered the narratives of my family. Besides the early exposure to threat, fear and losing my personal safety, I was blamed for many things. “We will never forgive you for making us suffer like this,” family members told me. “We thought you were smart enough to resist going with a stranger.” Years later I learned from Van der Kolk’s book that the body, when experiencing extreme fear or threat, often goes into “fight or flight” mode. In such instances, hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are released, which quicken the heart rate, slow digestion, shunt blood flow to major muscles and can alter nervous reactions. Such reactions give us energy to live through certain traumatic experiences and survive, but they can be repeated long after the trauma is over.

Blocking traumatic experiences by depending only on narratives told by our minds, or by our caregivers, can give these memories the power to manifest more deeply later in life, along with their associated or learned coping mechanisms.

Does the archive of the body follow an organized form, similar to the so-called ‘regular archive?’

Yes. There is a complicated connection between mind and body, through which human beings, like other mammals, have shown amazing abilities to formulate patterns and codes for survival. These patterns are constructed over years of experiences and are reinforced by certain behaviors, such that many of them are hard to break or change.

Many of us, for example, feel as if our bodies know the way home, or how to get to the office every day, as a result of cognitive and social programming and conditioning, and we sometimes make these trips without fully processing them consciously.

Van der Kolk claims trauma can leave one in a state of disassociation, where the inner archive is fragmented or split. This can lead to emotions, sounds, images, thoughts and physical sensations related to trauma taking on a life of their own. Often, the sensory fragments of memory intrude into the present and are literally re-lived, sometimes in ways that are more extreme than the original incident of trauma itself.

When I was lost as an adult, I now understand that the bodily reaction I had was so severe because it was triggered by my experiences as a child. I was 27 years old, and yet I froze as though I were a helpless child. This is not to say I should surrender to the resurfacing of former experiences in my life as an inevitable consequence of history. Rather, through things like theater, I can retrain my body to recognize what is a threat and what is not, and to be more present when experiencing such things.

Can your body be a compass through which to narrate your story?

Therapies that focus on the body, such as improvisational theater and yoga, in addition to more traditional forms of therapy, can often help people to regain an element of control over their bodies that may have been lost or fragmented. Van der Kolk suggests that many paths to healing following traumatic experiences are based on learning new ways of trying to break these subconscious patterns, and hence changing how your body navigates trauma.

Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti said that, in order to break a pattern, one must first observe what is there already from conditioning and programming. It is a kind of silence you can practice in the most chaotic of places. You find a point where the observer becomes the observed. In silencing all the voices that genuinely don’t belong to you and listening with an ear in the middle of the heart to this silence, you learn to carry your body as your loyal temple.

I am not in a position to recommend one approach to dealing with trauma over another. But, I have noticed that we often try to heal through finding safe spaces, often in and through our relationships with others, in which we can express ourselves. What if what we search for is closer than this? What if our bodies are not only our archive for untold histories but can also empower us to observe and alter the ways in which we deal with and respond to threat and trauma?

Illustration by Rawand Issa

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Riham Azizeldin