Body Memory: Relearning Safe and Happy


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 bodyus 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 bodytogether.  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 bodybody 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.

What Our Childhood Memories Reveal About Us

What are Body Memories? And How to Heal Them… #PTSD #sexualassault

How To Cope With Body Memories In PTSD Recovery

17 Replies to “Body Memory: Relearning Safe and Happy”

  1. Alice, I understand exactly what you are describing here. #metoo. I also have experienced the healing power of Holy Spirit so that I can safely abide in Him even in the midst of chaotic circumstances around people who may lack self-control. It’s a difficult thing to explain, and I think you so eloquently conveyed the body-logic of this. I would love to read more about the way you pray and minister to others in this situation. Thank you. You’re a blessing to the body of Christ.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. We often times forget how connected our emotions and bodies are. We are so blessed to have a father is walking with us through our healing into his peace.

  3. You can take a woman away from her abuser, but only she can take away the chains that bind her to this abuse, I live this bit. It reminds me that life is a personal journey. Hate, intimidation, anger and the likes can only ride on one’s life if given a chance. Nice article.

  4. Thank you for being so vulnerable and open. Your words, I’m sure, will bring so much healing to others! I love the exercise you do with the women in your group, to point out the spot in pain on Christ’s body, what a beautiful step towards healing!

  5. I always love how your blog always has new stuff to learn. God bless for this. I am undergoing a process in my life where I am trying to figure out all the issue I have never dealt with and this will help me a lot. There are places I go to and my body remembers and sorta aches because i used to there with a person I no longer talk to. I didn’t know it was that serious.

  6. keisharussell84 says: Reply

    “Physical pain resolves as emotional pain heals.” This statement is so very true! Once you release your emotional pain over for healing, your body will heal as well. Everything that happens to us emotionally, physically, and physiologically affects our bodies.

  7. Your words are so beautiful and vulnerable and raw. I can almost “hear” you speak! (Such an excellent writing style and talent you have!) How true, that our bodies physically retain memory…….whether painful or beautiful. That is something that I never realized until reading your words. But, a I reflect on them, I can see how my own body responds to memory……some are painful, but in my case, most are beautiful. And i can’t help but think, our Heavenly Father continues to make your story beautiful, as well!

  8. Wow, this is so true! How to re-program our bodies to not react so strongly to certain things–this is the hard part. God is able to heal and make us whole. We must not condemn ourselves for reacting disproportionately to the situation but ask God what is going on to unravel the memory and heal.

  9. “I ask her to point in her imagination to the place on Jesus’ body on the cross where she had been injured.” This is so, so good! So many great, practical ways to get through something that can be crippling. Thank you so much for sharing.

  10. “Learning to hear and validate the experiences of your body is a necessary step to being whole.” so rightfully said . whixh means we train ourselves to understand what’s from the Spirit man and what’s from the flesh and sow to the Spirit.

  11. hisdearlyloveddaughter says: Reply

    Thank-you for this. I will be re-reading it more slowly to digest the wisdom. This line in particular: “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.” I think there is a lot I still have to learn about overcoming the triggers and bad memories. I have found a great deal of victory in Christ, but there are some practical suggestions here to further that progress.

  12. I have to be honest, I’ve never really heard of this although I know it is so true. Thanks so much for sharing your journey and your heart. It’s beautiful x

  13. Alice, this is such a wonderful article! This is a conversation that I’m having with my clients often. We walk through their somatic complaints in relation to their emotions. We work on patterns that exist to help them understand the connection. Your book choices are excellent. Another great one is In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness by Peter A. Levine. And he has a great child/adolescent book Trauma Through a child’s eyes.

  14. Thanks for sharing your story. I’ve never had PTSD, but I am empathetic by nature and it’s always helpful to be reminded that Jesus is always the answer.

  15. I think you’re so right about physical pain heals as emotional pain does. This was a great, insightful post! Thank you for sharing!

  16. I’ve never been in an abusive relationship but do know the feeling of being jarred back into a painful memory and just collapsing into tears due to my body reacting even though everything was fine. The location, smells, complete environment shook my body to the core…it took me a while to overcome it but I eventually did.

    Thankful that you have come so far as well!

  17. While I have not experienced PTSD, you have done an incredible job sharing something of what you face when triggered. This is one of the more insightful and interesting posts I have read – I have much to think about and feel that the knowledge you have shared here is information I will carry with me in my dealings with others who may have experienced something similar to you. I love hearing how you have overcome so much and your renewal is glorifying to God. Bless you!

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