April 28, 2003
Sexual Problems - Part 7: Facing and Releasing Painful Memories
You're eight years old and you're exploring for the first time in a swampy area. A big snake slithers over your foot and you automatically jump back in fright. Your heart pounds rapidly and your breathing increases. You run away at top speed.
Twenty years later, images, sounds, and smells that are similar to that scene activate the brain patterns of the original event, and the old imprint images of the swamp and the snake appear. When they do - even if there is no danger present - the dangerous imagery will trigger the brain to release hormones that start a fear response.
The purpose of this mechanism is to protect. Fearful and hurtful experiences are stored for future reference so that we can learn and not repeat actions that lead to further harm. The experience of the snake will forever remind you that swamps are places where snakes live - and you will be appropriately cautious.
This frightening experience is an example of healthy fear and a fully functioning memory system. A traumatic experience, however, is of a different degree.
Trauma is what happens when an experience is so frightening or painful that the system is overwhelmed, and the memory of the experience is fully or partially repressed. If, at the time of the experience, we do not respond with action (fight or flight) and/or emotion (crying, raging, screaming), the body's reactive energy is held inside.
If an experience is repressed it is also not fully experienced. It sits in "hiding," out of the sphere of normal working consciousness, ready to be triggered by associations in everyday experience. When it is triggered, like a compressed spring, the power of the repressed physical and emotional response jumps up for release. If frightening unconscious material rises suddenly to consciousness, the body - alerted into action by the brain's amygdala - reacts in desperation as if the danger is imminent. Panic attacks and anxiety attacks are almost always caused by this mechanism.
If the event with the snake had been different - if it had been painful and terrifying with no release and emotional resolution - then it would have escalated to the level of shock/trauma. It would not be a useful experience, it would be a hidden element causing dysfunction in the normal memory/response system. Instead of being a part of your "reference library" of experiences, it would become a hidden demon that would drive puzzling symptoms such as a fear of the outdoors, chronic muscle tension, inexplicable anxiety, extreme startle reflex, an inability to relax and enjoy life experiences, and an elevated resting heart rate, just to name a few.
In what other ways is shock different from a normal scary memory? As I mentioned in the previous article, a severe shock/trauma creates partial to full memory repression and fragmented imprinting. In many cases of early sexual abuse, the adult survivor simply has no memory of the event or events, and the memories or impressions that do arise can be confusing and disjointed. If something triggers the traumatic material, it will, by its nature, arise in ways that are surprising and disturbing. Many times the old memories arise more as physical components of feelings and sensations than as images. We feel physical revulsion and fear but do not know why. Sometimes the memories appear as out-of-context flashbacks that surprise us and then disappear.
The most important thing for anyone with these symptoms to grasp is that all feelings are real. That simply means that what you experience is what you experience - so take it as such. If you are terrified on a perfectly calm, sunny day, you are terrified. The fact that there is nothing dangerous around you does not make the feeling less real. I repeat - the feelings are real.
When this happens we often say, "but I'm not being realistic. I shouldn't be feeling this way." True, the fear is not proportionate to the present-day situation, but dismissing the feeling will not help. Whenever we feel something, there is a reason, even if that reason does not obviously come from present-day experience. If our feelings are troublesome, all the more reason to start paying attention to them.
These types of recurring fears and anxiety are usually signs of shock and trauma. The old imprints are becoming active and coming to the surface to be faced and released. The repressed energy rises to the surface like toxins breaking through the skin.
Rising memories of sexual abuse and other severe traumas are healing crises of a high order. Without sympathetic and experienced support, most of us will simply not be able to integrate the experience and heal. Finding that support and safety is essential.
With the assistance of at least one experienced support person/facilitator, the most important issue is to use your adult thinking mind to start unravelling the knots of denial. The first step is to accept that all feelings have validity as real experiences in their own right.
The second step is to rationally understand and accept the theory of how memories are imprinted, and how trauma and repressed memories work. Knowing that repressed traumatic imprints can be triggered and cause fearful body reactions in the present can take the mystery - and further fear - out of these symptoms. Then, when you are having symptoms, you can say to yourself, "I know I feel terrible, but I am not actually in danger. These are old feelings. I am safe even though I feel that I am not."
Knowing that these extreme feelings are "old" leads to the third step. Imprints are what they are - real imprints - of an event that is long past and no longer real. They are "mind stuff." They are like memories of scary movies, and yet they have the ability to trigger our brain and body into a full fear response. The third step is to fully understand that they are just images - however repulsive or scary. Your body wants to flee as if the danger is happening now, but it is not happening now. This understanding will build the courage to actually face the imprints and release them.
Understanding is essential because it bolsters the adult, rational mind, which we need to direct us through the childlike emotions that are contained in the imprints. In primal integration, the adult consciousness needs to be present, rooting the experience in present-day reality. This is one of the things that makes the primal experience healing rather than simply distressing and disintegrating.
The fourth step is to realize that resolution will not be found in the original event, whatever it was. That event is over. What makes life dysfunctional now is the triggered imprints - not the original traumatic experience. This is an essential realization. You do not have to reconstruct the exact details of the abuse in order to get well. Given that the imprinting is fragmented, reconstruction is usually impossible anyway. The problem is the imprinted "pictures" and feelings that torment us, in whatever form they have taken in your brain.
The fifth step is to reverse the process of repression and get the imprints out of hiding. You need to look at them, tell them to someone you trust, and have full physical and emotional expression of all the feelings that come with them. At first, describing the images and feelings as they appear is a major piece. This can be done by journalling and telling a trusted support person/facilitator. In whatever way possible, the story of the abuse must come out of hiding and be told. To tell the awful details and discover that you are still accepted and respected is essential. It breaks the lie of denial that says "the worst" will happen if you tell and express yourself.
Eventually you may need to express the shocking experience more physically in order to let the energy of the repressed reaction come out. You may need to shake, curl up, cry, wail, shriek, kick, hit, run, swear, and yell. Depending on the power of the experience, you may have to do this many times for each incident. There is no quick fix, but this process is effective.
Some people ask, "why do we have to bother going back into that old painful stuff?" First, it's not old. The imprints are in you right now, actively making a mess of your mind, body, and emotions every day. Second, ignoring it does not make it go away. Is there any other effective choice?
In primal integration, we are simply being realistic. Feelings are a force of nature and, in primal, we just let them do what they need to do. We don't concoct anything. If the pain and fear is there, it's there. We can either hide from it or let it out.
If we let emotions out in the right supportive environment, change and healing occurs. By fully experiencing the imprints, we get to know them and can more easily separate the "old" feelings from present-day reality. With that edge, we can make life choices based on present-day information unclouded by traumatic reactions. Eventually, expressed imprints lose their charge and become more like typical memories. Dysfunctional physical and emotional symptoms, driven by the repressed material, gradually evaporate. We are more "in" life, rather than watching or avoiding it.
Sexual problems and other symptoms driven by childhood sexual abuse do not have to be a "life sentence." With the right support and the right process, the shadows that haunt you will disappear in the morning sun.
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Sexual Problems - Part 1: It's a Feeling Problem