The body remembers what the mind forgets is something mind/body therapists say when it comes to both physical or psychological trauma and the body. Massage therapists often see proof in this when working on clients. The client starts to tense up when a certain part of the arm is touched, may laugh when getting a foot massage, or start to cry as they relax during a back massage. It seems to come out of nowhere and may startle or confuse both the therapist and the client. Why and how does this happen?
What Is Muscle Memory?
Muscle memory is related to such terms as motor learning, body memory and cellular memory, though each means something slightly different. The basic hypothesis for all of them is that the physical body retains a memory of what the mind experiences and the mind, or brain and nervous system, retain a memory of what the body experiences.
Most people have heard that once you learn to ride a bicycle you never forget, even if you haven’t ridden one in years. You may have a bit of a shaky start, but within a few minutes, those once idle neurons will reconnect and start firing. Once again, rider and bicycle will become as one and go merrily on their way.
If muscle memory did not exist, we would probably have to relearn our basic experiences every day. Would there even be concert violinists, great athletes or stage actors if our mental and physical memories did not coexist and respond cooperatively?
Muscle memory and the mind/body connection is realized when a person no longer has to think about what is being done, the body and mind go on a kind of automatic drive. The physical aspects are the easiest to understand. They are experienced on a daily basis. The muscle memory connected to psychological trauma can seem to some to be a bit more ethereal or even evasive when trying to comprehend the why’s and how’s of it all.
The Relationship Between Chronic Pain and Trauma
Chronic pain is generally defined as prolonged pain lasting longer than usual for natural healing. That is, once the physical wounds have healed or the danger related to emotional trauma has passed. It is said that time heals all wounds. For some people the visible wounds may appear to be healed, but the pain lingers on for months or years. It can be debilitating, interfering with day-to-day activities and lead to depression and anxiety that prohibits functioning in any kind of normal way.
The effects of trauma can last a long time. One example would be the phantom pain or irritation a person feels after a limb is amputated. A reason sometimes given is that it is due to muscle memory, the pain is felt or perhaps generated by the brain and acts as if the limb still exists, and the trauma is ongoing. Another example would be in the soldier experiencing post traumatic stress after his truck hits a land-mine. For years afterward he may feel the pain of the explosion every time he gets into a car. The reasons are complex and elusive.
The Physiology of Trauma
A physical trauma – something like a car accident, exposure to toxins, injury from an explosion, a physical assault – creates a reaction between the mind and body involving the autonomic (sympathetic and parasympathetic subdivisions) nervous system. It is that flight, fight or freeze response of the sympathetic portion reacting to an often life-threatening situation. Cortisol and norepinephrine are released and, along with other stress related hormones, affect the digestive process, heart rate, blood pressure, breathing as well as other body functions. These hormones act by rallying up stored energy to invigorate and mobilize muscles. An increase in these hormones long term can also negatively affect reproduction and the immune system.
In the brain, the amygdalae along with associated neural networks (part of the limbic system) generate a state of hyper-vigilance that can last well beyond the actual event causing the original trauma. The amygdalae, which also stimulate the hippocampus with regard to long-term memories, are responsible for memories associated with emotional events. If the trauma, whether physical or emotional (or both) is not addressed early on, the result can be Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as well as chronic pain. This chronic pain can be in areas associated with the original trauma or located throughout the body.
Long after the trauma, deep within the brain, the subconscious mind remembers. Within the limbic system lies the memories associated with the event or injury. The smells, the sounds, the tastes, the textures, the visuals – all the senses are stimulated during a trauma and stored to form a kind of emotional picture within the brain.
Take for example a young boy playing Little League baseball. He slides into first base and brakes his arm. His brain may associate the pain he feels with the sound of a bat hitting the ball, the smell of ball-park hot dogs, the dust and dirt cloud around him as he falls, the cheering of the crowd, the feel of his uniform against his skin. All stored by the brain, so if a similar situation arises, the body and mind can react to protect the physical and mental integrity of the individual. Later in life, perhaps playing catch with his son, or maybe even watching a ball game, the adult experiences pain seemingly out of nowhere, maybe in his arm or leg. Somehow the brain has reassociated that visual or action with what happened so long ago. A kind of cascade effect is created from brain to muscle and starts to recreate that original pain. This is just one example of muscle memory coming in to play when it is related to trauma.
Can Massage Really Help?
Massage and other forms of bodywork can be of great benefit when it comes to retraining the brain and muscles to become rebalanced and reactive in healthy, pain-free ways. With regard to emotional trauma, bodywork along with various methods of psychological talk-therapy can be very helpful.
Massage therapy can bring healthy touch to someone who fears touch because of chronic pain or emotional trauma (especially those arising as a result of child abuse, sexual assault or combat related injuries). For someone new to healthy touch, starting out with Shiatsu techniques, or even non-touching therapies such as Therapeutic Touch, Reiki or other energy work can be very helpful. As time progresses, Cranial-Sacral techniques, Polarity Therapy and Swedish massage can be used. As the person becomes more attuned to his or her body, modalities such as Trigger Point Massage, Rolfing and Feldenkrais Movement Re-education can be used as well. These more rigorous styles of bodywork should not be used on someone who is experiencing bodywork for the first time.
Retraining the body is not something done quickly; it takes time to create new connections and for the brain to remember original pre-trauma neuronal pathways. For the massage therapist this type of work can be very rewarding as improvement and progress is eventually seen in the client’s posture, movement, flexibility and emotional behavior.