That our body can retain memory is probably no surprise to most women. We look at our grown children and remember the sweet weight of their infant bodies in our arms and how soft their little cheeks were to kiss. Thanksgiving is upon us and our mouths water remembering familiar holiday dishes or when the fragrance of pumpkin pie fills the house. The highway between smell and memory is a short one.
But the tendency to store memories in our body can work against us, causing anxiety or dread to pop up in unexpected and inconvenient places. For me, to be in the presence of anger caused my body to clench like a tight fist. I grew anxious and defensive, ready to fight or run. My hands shook as well. And whoever was angry was not angry at me. My brain saw danger and my body ran with it.
The problem for me was a complicated one. Being naturally empathetic, the emotions of others deeply affect me. And dealing with the anger of others is a necessary life skill. An analogy for this would be lifting weights. We start by lifting small weights and graduate to larger weights as our capacity expands. But in my abusive first marriage, the weight of anger was set at five hundred pounds at the get-go.
His rages terrified me, and my sensitive nature felt it all too keenly. Just as trying to lift weights that are far too heavy will damage muscles, carrying the gargantuan weight of John’s anger injured me, body, soul, and spirit.
For my mother, her body still retains to some degree the memory of my father’s heart attack at age twenty-six. He was in Washington DC and my mother was at home in Southern California, tending to my brother and me. He lived and was fine, but even now, forty-three years later, her body goes through the pain of that frightening phone call. She doesn’t think about that episode very often, but her body remembers it every time my father embarks on another trip.
In prayer ministry, many times a woman who has endured physical abuse will have aches and pains surface during our time together. I ask her to point in her imagination to the place on Jesus’ body on the cross where she had been injured. Often that body part turns warm and then the muscle relaxes. Physical pain resolves as emotional pain heals. This is true for me as well. The further I move out of PTSD, the stronger my back gets.
Resolving body memory takes some time and intentional effort. It takes practice. After I married my current and wonderful husband, he had a family member who was chronically angry. To be near her was truly agony for me. When I knew I would see her, my body would get a bit shaky. I would often grow a bit clumsy trying to subdue the anxiety. I grew careless of my physical surroundings. In fact, that is how I judge my mindfulness. If I bang my elbows or stub my toes a few times in a day, I know that I have turned inward. I need to ground my body and mind in the present.
At the suggestion of my counselor, I used a little imagination and practice to keep my emotions in a safe zone in the presence of this turbulent relative. I would imagine her storming through the front door. I would picture the sulky look and the narrowed eyes signaling displeasure. I could hear the snark in her tone. And all the while this happened in my mind, I would work with my body to feel safe.
For those readers who have not perhaps suffered extreme abuse, the presence of a grumpy teenager might not seem intimidating. And my mind was on board with that. But my body was back in Kentucky wondering who was going to get hurt and how bad. You can take a woman away from her abuser. Only she can take off the chains of abuse that bind her mind and body.
My practice paid off. It isn’t that I don’t dread ugly emotional scenes. Who doesn’t? But I recently witnessed another ugly temper tantrum by my poor damaged relative and I knew I was further along than I had ever been because I didn’t shake. Not once. I hated seeing it. I hated hearing it. I will continue to avoid being exposed to it, but I remained safe inside myself. I didn’t feel her anger inside of me because I learned how to keep my own sense of well-being front and center.
The first step towards healing the remembered pain in your body is to learn to listen carefully to your own being. Your body whispers truths to you all day when you are tired, hungry, or emotional. Sometimes it shouts in the form of pain. Learning to hear and validate the experiences of your body is a necessary step to being whole. We are called to love God in body, soul, and spirit. Each of those areas come with unique challenges.
If you find yourself having unexpected or unwelcome physical responses to situations, I suggest you ask your body to share its story with you. Chances are you each remember the triggering event a bit differently. But remember, emotional and physical pain often share the same neural pathways. Taking a trip down memory lane might be the road back to a healthier you.
Here are some important books on the topic. I found both useful and eye-opening.