Written by Meg Walters
Not all memories live in the mind. After traumatic experiences, our bodies store memories, too. Here’s what you need to know about ‘feeling memories’.
Have you ever had a sudden, seemingly inexplicable reaction to a song or smell or taste like some kind of odd, emotional déjà vu? As it turns out, this strange and apparently meaningless feeling might actually be a memory.
As Annie Wright, a licensed marriage and family therapist, explained in a piece for Psychology Today, not all memories manifest as images or words in our brains – some memories, especially traumatic memories, live as feelings or sensations in the body. These ‘feeling memories’ can be harder to understand as we often mistake them for nonsensical emotions.
What is a feeling memory?
Unlike a regular memory, which may manifest almost like a moving image or story that you can pull up and “play back” in the brain, feeling memories exist in the body as abstract sensations. Usually, they have no narrative – at least not one you can follow or make sense of.
Why do we form this other type of memory? According to Wright, it’s all to do with how the brain creates memories. As she explains, there are three distinct parts of the brain where memories are made: the frontal lobes, the limbic system and the brainstem.
When we have “non-threatening” experiences, like a holiday in Italy, the frontal lobes kick in and store the memory like a story. There may be a feeling memory associated with your holiday, such as the smell of pizza or the taste of Aperol Spritz, but these sensations will also be linked to the story they were originally attached to.
However, when something traumatic occurs, the frontal lobes may switch off. This leaves only the limbic system and the brainstem to form your memories of the event, and traumatic memories are sometimes stored in the body. “The threat or trauma of that moment/experience isn’t then stored in the prefrontal cortex as a cohesive narrative […] instead, that experience is stored as a set of feeling and somatic responses lacking a cohesive narrative,” says Wright.
“This means that, after the threat passes – perhaps very long after the threat passes – you can be going about your life until perhaps some confluence of events and circumstances ‘reminds’ your amygdala of the long-ago threat despite the content and context being radically different,” she goes on. In other words, you may suddenly find yourself experiencing the sensations from the traumatic event without fully understanding why.
How to heal from trauma-related feeling memories
If you find yourself having seemingly inexplicable reactions to “everyday” events, you may be experiencing feeling memories that manifest within the body.
According to Wright, the best way to heal from trauma-related feeling memories is to work with a therapist.
“A good trauma therapist will work from the stabilization model and, as part of the first phase of this work, help you help your brain understand that you are safe in the here and now and that the past is over, despite the unconscious triggering,” she writes. Ultimately, a therapist can help you reconnect your frontal lobes to your traumatic feeling memories so that you feel in control when these memories arise again.
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