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How the Body Stores Trauma

I want to start today with a quote that I have appreciated from a neurologist and former Medical Director of a pain clinic, Dr. Robert Scaer, MD:

“The pattern of movements of muscles and tendons used in the act of defense during the threat... become a permanent procedural memory.”

Through many years of working as a clinician with clients who have experienced trauma, what I have learned and what is so clear to me now, is that studying the body is critical. Early on I found myself encouraging my clients to do body work as part of their therapy. As I continued to work with people, I had a hard time imagining that they could really feel better if their bodies remained in the same fear response. I could visually observe the enduring tension patterns in their bodies and they confirmed the existence of on-going tension and pain through descriptions of their experiences and suffering. This statement from Dr. Robert Scaer helped explain this phenomenon. Dr. Scaer is a neurologist who specialized in treating trauma, particularly with pain patients. His statement is referring to the idea that when the body prepares for a traumatic event through fight, flight and freeze (FFF)—this FFF response and preparation becomes permanently etched in our procedural memory (like how we never forget to ride a bike). It is actually stored in the same kind of memory file. So, yes, he is saying that this becomes permanently encoded in our tendons and muscles—and there are associated movements that the body also holds. There is a brilliance to this, really—in that we never want to forget how to respond, so these kind of memories encode differently in the body. The body does not ever want to forget this necessary survival response—and that is the brilliance—and it is also how people get stuck in trauma states, which are pain, anxiety, and depression as well as corresponding tension patterns. The body’s response to the threat is what keeps it “stuck.” One way to see this is that the body has a motor plan that it is trying to complete—and if it does, it begins to move more out of this state. This completion of a motor plan leads to where these trauma states are less of a draw for the body. Instead, we begin to create a different and settled state in the body. The next training will focus on helping clients heal from trauma by explaining how to identify these motor plans and how to bring these plans to completion. There will be videos, demos and discussion to help this be clearer for clinicians, body workers, medical personnel interested and those interested in studying trauma more.

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