The Relationship between Trauma and Muscle Memory
Muscle memory is an elegant mechanism that allows us to move through the world without conscious thought. Once we have learned certain movements (such as walking, biking, or lifting a fork to eat), we can repeat them automatically, without thinking about them. We might need to practice riding a bike for days or weeks before we have the muscle memory necessary to jump on a ten-speed and take off without thinking about how to balance ourselves, pedal, and steer. Once we have that muscle memory, though, it tends to be permanent. In essence, the body retains a memory of what the mind experiences, and the mind retains a memory of what the body experiences.
Unlike learning to ride a bike, trauma does not need to occur over and over in order for the body to lock a muscle memory into place. Traumatic events impact the autonomic nervous system, producing a fight, flight, freeze, or faun response to an overwhelming situation. Stress-related hormones including cortisol and norepinephrine are released, and a state of hypervigilance is created by the amygdala. Meanwhile, the limbic system stores sensory memories associated with the traumatic event so that should a similar situation arise, the mind and musculature can immediately react to protect the body from harm.
Unfortunately, our bodies and brains aren’t always able to distinguish perceived threats from real danger. Long after the trauma has ended, our subconscious mind remembers all of the sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and textures associated with the original trauma. When we encounter those sensory cues (or similar ones) again, we get “triggered” into responding as though we are experiencing the same trauma all over again. Our bodies may brace for violence, prepare to run away, freeze into place, or collapse in defeat.
Because our bodies are directly involved in our responses to trauma both during and following a traumatic event, addressing traumatic muscle memory must be a part of any successful trauma therapy treatment plan. I offer a variety of ways to address the impact of trauma on the physical body, including massage therapy, trauma touch therapy, and pelvic floor yoga.