◀ All Blog Posts

Trauma, Memory, and Yoga

By Erin Finck

MON DEC 07, 2020

Trauma and Memory

Types of Memory

Human beings have different types of memories that involve multiple, complex processes.

We have:

  1. Sensory memory, which lasts less than a second. This is what’s involved when you touch something sharp, your body immediately withdrawals your hand to avoid injury.
  2. Short term or working memory, which lasts less than a minute. This is what’s involved when you are presented with new information. Either it transfers over to long-term, or it doesn’t, and you’ve promptly forgotten it. (Ever been told someone’s name, which way to turn, or what to get at the grocery store, and promptly forgotten it?)
  3. Long term memory, which lasts a lifetime. There are two types of long-term memories:
    1. Implicit memory, which is procedural and perceptual. Implicit memories are typically subliminal, meaning they exist beneath (or outside of) a person’s awareness, sometimes referred to as the low road, as they relate to systems in the body, or, below the brain.
    2. Explicit memory, which is declarative and conceptual. Explicit memories are usually above (within) a person’s awareness, and called the high road, since they involve processes above the body, in the brain.

Implicit memories are procedural in that we remember how to do something, such as ride a bike, play a song on the piano, or how to use a screwdriver. Have you ever tried to explain to someone how to do something? Sometimes it’s hard to explain with words. We end up taking the thing from the person and saying, “Here, let me do it. Watch me.” It’s kept in the body.

Implicit memories are also perceptual and may be sensory (involving the senses, such as sounds, scents and touch). The brain will link a sensory cue, lets say, a loud crash, with a memory. However, the person is not aware of what the memory is, as it happens outside of their awareness. Whenever they hear a loud crash, they might have a startle response, they may automatically stand up from wherever they are, look for a place to hide, and crouch under the nearest table. Their heart might be racing, their palms sweating; they may feel like they are going to faint, they might want to cry or scream. This is an example of what may happen in a person who is living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). See how this happens in the body? If a sensory cue is linked to physical or emotional manifestations outside of a person’s conscious awareness (for example, having an unexplainable aversion to the sense of touch), we would say that this would involve implicit memory, as the aversion is linked to a memory outside of conscious awareness, and is represented in the body.

Explicit memories, on the other hand, may be sensory or lingual. It’s conceptual, so it happens within a person’s awareness. A person is totally conscious that a certain cue is related to a memory. The brain will link a sensory cue, lets say, the scent of baking bread, with a memory. This time, you are aware that the scent of baking bread is linked to the memory of being at grandma’s house when she was baking bread. So now, whenever you smell bread baking, you are reminded of grandma’s house, and about a dozen other memories and cues that you associate with grandma. You might feel something like reminiscence, warmth, and longing. You might take in a deep breath as you remember, your heart rate might slow down, you may feel a bit more relaxed. This happens in the body, but there is a conceptual component, the parts of the brain that are involved with storing memories (the hippocampus) has linked the scent of baking bread with a conscious memory of grandma. The memory gets processed through more executive regions of the brain, which send signals back to the body: take a deep breath, relax, smile with memories of grandma.

How Memory Works

Information from the internal and external world is received through the body and gets sent to the brain. The thalamus (an area of the brain between the midbrain and the cerebral cortex) acts as a relay station: it receives and sends info to other parts of the brain. Sensory information gets sent to the amygdala (a part of the brain’s limbic system involved in emotional memories) and the neocortex (part of the cerebral cortex, involved in higher-order functions like perceiving sensory information, cognition, and language). The amygdala acts as an alarm system. If the neocortex determines the information it received to be dangerous, it will trigger the alarm (amygdala), which will then signal other parts of the brain to send messages back to the body to take action. If the information is not considered dangerous, the alarm is not activated. From here, sensory information passes on through the hippocampus (also part of the limbic system, involved in new memory formation, learning, and emotions). Information that wasn’t received under extreme stress, like the smell of freshly baked bread at grandma’s house, gets stored in long-term memory. Sensory information received under extreme stress never makes it to long-term memory.

It gets stuck, as fragments, pieces of unprocessed sensory information. Flashbacks, nightmares, images, scents, and a myriad of somatic symptoms may haunt a person who has endured trauma. They may or may not be conscious of the memories that the cues (sensory information) are related to. Let’s consider that the emotional parts of the brain are developed first, immediately after birth. Let’s also consider that the parts of the brain associated with language development aren’t fully developed until after the preschool years. Then, let’s consider that the prefrontal cortex, the “highest” region of the brain, involved in logical, analytical thinking and executive functions like decision making, aren’t fully developed in a human being until after the age of 24.

If a person survived trauma at the age of three, they don’t even have the capability to put into words what happened to them. They may experience unpleasant sensations in their body, like tingling or numbness. They may get upset to their stomach or get headaches. They may be prone to emotional outbursts and unable to calm themselves. The experience is trapped in the body. It never transfers over into the parts of the brain that deal with sensory information under normal conditions. It gets stored as fragments, pieces of sensory information that aren’t able to be understood.

If a child is chronically exposed to this type of extreme stress, the prolonged, chronic trauma may cause the parts of their brain that are involved in sensory perception (see this post about interoception), emotions, and self-regulation will get severely damaged, if not shut down entirely. The person might end up being mute, without affect, or numb. If they are touched, they may react as though they are in severe pain, or maybe they can’t target the area of their body that is being touched. Consequently, they might have difficulty with interpersonal relationships (let’s consider people who end up in relationships that involve interpersonal violence, people who have social anxiety, agoraphobia, etc). They may be unable to self-soothe (consider people with substance use disorders and self-injurious behaviors). In severe cases, they may not even be able to recognize themselves in a mirror.

How are you supposed to talk to a therapist if you don’t even know what happened to you? There are no words.

Trauma Sensitive Yoga as a Means Toward

Repair and Recovery of Brain Functioning

If top-down (working with our minds by using processes such as language, memory, descriptions of how we are feeling) approaches are unable to be implemented due to severe damage to the areas of the brain that are involved in those types of processes, it would seem reasonable to work instead with bottom-up (working in the body with movement and mindfulness practices) approaches, as they are involved in the repair and recovery of function (Robertson & Murre, 1999) and improvements in completing every day tasks, executive functions such as decision making, working memory, and selective attention (Alfonso et al., 2011; In de Braek et al., 2012; Kransy-Pacini, Chevingnard, et al., 2014; Krasny-Pacini, Limond et al., 2014; Levine et al., 2000, 2007, 2011; Stubberud et al., 2013; Van Hooren et al., 2007).

Body-scan meditations, which encourage participants to become aware of and to monitor bodily sensations experienced throughout the body, are thought to enhance interoceptive awareness and assist in overcoming emotional detachment in people who have been traumatized (Follette, Briere, Rozell, Hopper & Rome, 2014; Frewen & Lanius, 2015). Significant increase in right insula gray matter thickness (the insula is a part of the brain that is involved with emotional awareness and our sense of self) were found in people who had practiced body scan meditation (Holzel et al., 2008; Lazar et al., 2005), indicating further that these parts of the brain involved with emotions, and therefore being able to describe emotions, show restored functioning after practicing bottom-up processes.

One of the key components of Trauma-Sensitive Yoga is that the participant is gently guided into bringing awareness into the parts of the body that are experiencing sensation while they are practicing certain forms. It is also important to note that Trauma Sensitive Yoga pays special attention that the environment in which it is practiced is safe and inclusive. As we have seen earlier, when the brain and body are under extreme stress, the brain is unable to function normally. As it applies to memory, if the environment in which mindfulness based practices are practiced in a safe environment, the brain can learn how to interpret sensory information effectively, restoring functioning to key parts of the brain. With this restored functioning, the participant will be able to process sensory information in a way that is no longer overwhelming. Since the functioning of the parts of the brain involved with describing emotional experiences are restored, the participant can then begin easing their way into top-down approaches in therapy, so that they may finally be able to process and make sense of their experience.

Copyright © 2020 Erin Finck. All Rights Reserved.