Body Memories and ‘Grounding’ in Sexual Trauma Therapy

Overhead view of a person's legs in blue pants and feet in black and white sneakers standing in dandelion-spotted grassThe idea of seeking therapy after experiencing a traumatic event can be daunting. For some people, it can be almost as frightening as the trauma itself. Whether the traumatic event (or events) happened days, months, years, or decades ago, the prospect of facing it can make it seem like it was just yesterday.

If you are considering this path, it may be helpful for you to know we hold trauma and traumatic memories in the body. This means when you start to process sexual trauma (or consider processing it by starting to talk to a therapist), your body may start to have what we call “body memories.” As Peter Levine has explained, body memories can be described as a physical reexperiencing of the traumatic event(s). In other words, your nervous system and your body experience the feelings and sensations you experienced during the original traumatic event. These memories may be explicit (you have always remembered them) or implicit (not connected to a linear story line). Implicit memories can happen for any traumatic event and may be particularly common if you were under the influence of alcohol or drugs, were a child during the abuse, or if the abuse happened over a prolonged period of time.

If you experience this, your therapist can help you learn how to practice bringing your awareness back to the present moment. One such example of this type of “grounding” is to bring your awareness or focus to your feet, saying to yourself, “My feet are on the ground. I’m present in this moment. These feelings are from the past.” This may sound simplistic or even silly, but this grounding technique can help you stay in the moment rather than flashing back to the past. Wiggling your feet and saying these simple phrases out loud may help to remind you that, regardless of what is happening in your body, the actual trauma is over.

For people who are not prepared to experience body memories when they start talking about their trauma(s), the shock of doing so may lead them to abruptly stop coming to therapy. It is uncomfortable, after all. They may reexperience post-assault symptoms in an overwhelming, rather than productive, way and fear becoming retraumatized. The potential for this is why I start all therapeutic relationships by establishing safety. Judith Herman, in her classic Trauma and Recovery, outlines the three necessary stages to any effective trauma resolution process: (1) safety, (2) remembrance and mourning, and (3) reconnection. That first piece, safety, is where developing the grounding skill happens.

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Other grounding and safety techniques may include the following:

The brilliant part about trauma therapy’s building of safety nets and grounding skills is it is limited only by one’s imagination.

  • Developing a “safe place” you can call upon when you need to regulate an intense experience of emotions
  • Developing self-care coping skills and a plan to use them regularly
  • Establishing an external compartmentalization tool

Creating a compartment can be as simple as drawing a treasure chest where you imagine putting the traumatic memories when you are not in session, or as complex as a developing an end-of-session routine to keep the traumatic stimuli in the office so you can continue functioning in everyday life. This list is by no means exhaustive. In fact, the brilliant part about trauma therapy’s building of safety nets and grounding skills is it is limited only by one’s imagination.

Practicing the above won’t make the traumatic experience, or even the memories, go away. However, when practiced consistently, these skills—along with a consciously supportive healing relationship with a knowledgeable trauma therapist—can help you remain grounded. The ability to ground is the first step toward the reprocessing and resolution of sexual trauma rather than a retriggering of trauma and retraumatization in therapy.

References:

  1. Courtois, C. A., & Ford, J. D. (2009). Treating Complex Traumatic Stress Disorders: An Evidence-Based Guide. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
  2. Herman, J. L. (1997). Trauma and Recovery. New York, NY: BasicBooks.
  3. Levine, P. A. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma: The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences. Berkeley, Calif: North Atlantic Books.
  4. Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York, NY: Viking.

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  • Mills

    March 29th, 2017 at 8:29 AM

    Thank you for reminding us that going through therapy can at times be so traumatic for a victim of any kind of abusive event. I guess in my mind I am always thinking just go talk about it, get it all out to someone who can listen and understand, never thinking about the pain of having to relive the events that have brought them there in the first place. I feel bad looking back on times that I might have actually said this to someone never even giving a thought to any of that.

  • tonia

    March 29th, 2017 at 6:22 PM

    Seems so simple and yet I am sure for trauma victims it can be imperative for this to say this to themselves multiple times when reliving the trauma to help them feel more safe and secure. And really, even for those who have experienced smaller things that could also be helpful. It is all a matter of saying where you are right here and right now, so that hopefully you don’t get pulled back into all of the very real pain that this event brought to you.

  • kris

    March 30th, 2017 at 6:46 AM

    If only it was that easy to resolve and move on

  • Reaca Pearl

    March 30th, 2017 at 10:28 AM

    Thank you, Tonia and Mills. Yes, I think important reminders all around about how starting therapy folx will likely feel worse before they feel better… and the difference between retraumatizing and reprocessing.

  • Reaca Pearl

    April 4th, 2017 at 2:36 PM

    Yes, Kris, it’s not ever easy to resolve and move on, unfortunately. That’s one of the reasons I recommend folx finding a competent trauma therapist who not only knows trauma resolution but who is also a good fit for the client.

  • David L

    April 8th, 2017 at 6:05 AM

    Good article, except I would reference Peter Levine’s new book @In an unspoken voice
    amazon.co.uk/Unspoken-Voice-Releases-Restores-Goodness-ebook/dp/B009BVWRLO/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1491656571&sr=1-1&keywords=in+an+unspoken+voice+peter+levine
    As his first book is very out of date and doesn’t give nearly as much information about trauma. As a Trauma Therapist, I can vouch for the efficacy of Peter’ work, it can help with a wide variety of traumatic experiences and symptoms.

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