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  • Writer's pictureJames Marston

Our Bodies Remember




I was recently watching a show on Netflix called Resident Alien.  It’s a sci-fi comedy starring Alan Tudyk and Sara Tomko. It’s cute and funny, with enough alien weirdness to keep a nerd like me engaged. 


Anyway, mild spoilers for an episode in Season 2….


There’s a scene where someone shoots someone else. This isn’t something the show takes lightly, and it makes a point of showing the impact that violence has on the people involved. The violent encounter leaves its mark on several of the characters, and one of them can’t sleep, keeps remembering the event, and is tortured by their role in the shooting. 


As a therapist, I thought it was a pretty good (for a TV show) take on trauma and guilt. It seemed like it was trying to capture something like Acute Stress Disorder in a way that was somewhat accurate. 


Then the alien decides to remove that person’s memory of the day. The predictable hijinks ensue, with that character experiencing dramatic and funny fallout from not remembering anything that happened.  


Then there was a scene where the person is sitting at a bar, and in the background someone starts a pool game. As the cue ball CRACKS into the other balls, the character jumps, flinching, and spins to look in the direction of the noise.


And I pointed at the screen and excitedly said, “YES!  The body remembers!”


After the other members of my household got me to shut up, I kept thinking about it. There’s a common misconception that trauma is exclusively seated in the brain–in the memory of the event. And while many of the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Acute Stress Disorder have an impact on cognition and thinking, a lot of it has to do with the autonomic nervous system. It has learned something from a situation, it has become conditioned to respond to situations that have triggered it before, and it responds.


Our bodies remember, even if we do not. Our bodies recognize triggers and respond without conscious thought. In the show, the character had no recollection of the shooting, but her body remembered and responded.  


In the real world, it’s difficult-to-impossible to really know how much of a PTSD or Acute Stress Disorder response is in our minds rather than our bodies. All we know for sure is it’s a little bit of both. 


Our bodies remember anniversaries, even when we’re not sure of the date. People have reported to me feeling down, or bummed out, or stressed out, and not knowing why only to learn it was the anniversary of a trauma or loss. Our bodies associate certain smells with memories, emotions, or responses. 


Part of treating PTSD and Acute Trauma is undoing the association our bodies have made. We try and re-associate memories with different, calmer emotional body experiences.  We soothe ourselves, soothe our bodies, until we can remember the experience without our bodies responding to it. 


Or we find the alien, get our memories back, and learn a lesson about living with guilt and trauma in a neat 60 minute package.


I think one is a little more likely than the other. 

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