Body Memories and ‘Grounding’ in Sexual Trauma Therapy
March 29, 2017 • Contributed by Reaca Pearl, MA, LPC, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert
The 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.
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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.
Courtois, C. A., & Ford, J. D. (2009). Treating Complex Traumatic Stress Disorders: An Evidence-Based Guide. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Herman, J. L. (1997). Trauma and Recovery. New York, NY: BasicBooks.
Levine, P. A. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma: The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences. Berkeley, Calif: North Atlantic Books.
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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