Trauma and Memory, Dr Peter Levine

From a talk given November 2014

Stay with the here-and-now, moment-to-moment experience in the body and use this as a secure base from which to then reach into the implicit memories. Out of the safety of the present, we are dipping into these traumatic experiences to revisit but not relive the trauma.

We need to create safety, and that can be through mindfulness, emotional regulation, safe relationships and empowerment within the body, and then we can move on to trauma processing. Throughout this whole process, we want to always foster reconnection.  Rediscovering safety and stability is a key part of our healing process.

When we’re able to work with these sensations in the present – when we’re able to come to a place where we’re feeling more balanced and more regulated in the body – then we can go to different traumatic memories and work with them in a productive way.

Memory has two types: Explicit and Implicit

Explicit memory has two types:

  • Declarative or semantic (what happened)
  • Episodic memories are more meaningful than declarative, they can bring feelings of warmth and gladness or other emotions

Implicit memory has two types:

  • Emotional – flags, that feeling of similarity when a situation in the past alerts us to a similar situation in the present; the strong emotion we feel gets our attention
  • Procedural memories are more powerful than emotional. They are memories of the body – when the body is threatened we retract, stiffen, fight, flee or freeze.  Procedural memory exists only in the body, not in our other memory systems.

Until procedural memories change, traumatic memories can’t change. While we may have insight, until that change happens from the inside – from the body and the procedural memory – we’re still stuck in the cycle of trauma repetition.

Revisiting trauma (very different from reliving trauma) gives us the ability to look at, experience, and move through. All of this has to be at the implicit level. It has to be felt through the body – through the body’s felt-sense, bodily sensation. That is the only way it can happen and the only way the core experience of trauma can change.

When the body’s experience of trauma changes, then the emotions change.  When the emotions change, we tend to have new episodic memories and when they change, we’re able to form a coherent, narrative about what happened to us.

Establishing self-compassion is often difficult and takes a long while, but the lack of self-compassion is at the core of the pathology.

Rituals of leaving things behind, of letting go: burning things, burying things. Write out the trauma, burn it, throw it away, throw it in the ocean, leave it in some significant spot like the grave of the person who abused or neglected or traumatized.

Rituals of inclusion or return are rituals of connection. It can help to find likeminded people and have some ritual with them.  It is also very, very important for people to be witnessed by another group of people. That’s a tribal thing: you tell your story; the talking stick goes around. You call on your community and set up a support circle. A sense of community happens with people who are warm, empathic and understanding.

Find a benefit in what happened to you can lead to forgiveness and letting go. Create a new story – something real and heartfelt, like, “Wow – that person showed me that I had the strength to really change my life. I did an incredibly difficult thing to get out of that abusive relationship. Look at these five things I had to do to do that” – whatever it was. The point is to begin to dwell on the story of who you had become as a result of that, and to essentially celebrate the new you who has come out of this instead of dwelling on the story of what had been done.

Hang on to what you’ve learned instead of what’s been done to you.