anxious memories

How Trauma Imapcts the Mind and the Body

Traumatic Memories

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Coping with a traumatic event isn’t only about managing what happened at the time, but it’s also a process of managing how it affects you throughout your life. Traumatic memories can be triggered years later or re-experienced through dreams, flashbacks, physical symptoms and emotional overwhelm.

For trauma survivors, traumatic memories can feel very scary. You’re left feeling as if you have no control over your body and mind. The good news is that you can bring some light and healing to the stored trauma by working with a trauma-informed therapist.

Storing Traumatic Experiences

Whenever a traumatic event happens, whether in childhood or adulthood, you store the experience two ways. You store visual memories and you store memories in your body. When these traumatic memories are triggered, some survivors report “seeing” the trauma as if it just happened. They can recall places, faces, smells, sounds and tastes.

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Emotions can spring up without prompting, and you can feel as if you’re in a dangerous situation even when the present moment isn’t dangerous or scary. Traumatic memories can also leave you feeling anxious or depressed. It might seem like you’re feeling bad for no reason at all, but when memories that are stored in the subconscious get triggered, intense feelings seem to come out of nowhere.

I know about traumatic memories because I’m a trauma therapist and a trauma survivor. I see my clients struggle in sessions everyday. I also struggled with anxiety for many years without truly understanding the impact my trauma had on me or why I was such an anxious child, teen and young adult.

What I’ve learned as a counseling psychology grad-student, as a therapist and as a client in therapy has helped me understand that you can’t control when your memory is triggered by past events. What you can control is how you react or respond to the feelings and memories as they arise. 

Avoiding the feelings that arise when you’re feeling triggered — pushing feelings away, telling yourself to get over it, using substances, disconnecting from your feelings — might help for a short time, but the feelings are still there, and they want to be heard.  In my interview with Kristen Ulmer, we discuss how to tune into our fear (which is usually the root of anxiety and depression) so it can be heard and honored. Brain research suggests that naming your feelings can diminish the intensity of these feelings.

Trauma, Difficult Feelings And Therapy

The hard part about naming feelings if you’re trauma survivor is that initially you might not know what you’re feeling. Because the traumatic feelings were stored in the unconscious memory and that helped you survive. You might also be worried that your feelings will overwhelm you if you tune in and pay attention. In fact, trying to resist or avoid your feelings can actually increase the intensity of your emotions.

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Working with a counselor who specializes in trauma-informed therapy can help. You learn how to soothe yourself when you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed. You learn to regulate your emotions as they arise and you learn to honor you story of healing.

Trauma therapy used to mean you had to retell your trauma story in order to heal, but that’s no longer a given. In trauma-focused therapy, you may share the story when you’re ready, but not before you have the skills create a space where your body and mind are ready.

If you’d like to know more about trauma, traumatic memories and healing here are some resources:

I spoke with Laura Reagan and Robert Cox about trauma, the brain and healing. You can find those interviews at

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk has done some groundbreaking work on the subject of traumatic memories. You can learn about his research in his book , The Body Keeps The Score. Additionally, the Sidran Institute’s article What Arte Traumatic Memories, explains traumatic memories and how they’re stored. 

Elizabeth Cush, LCPC is a therapist, blogger,  creator and host of the Woman Worriers podcast, and the owner of Progression Counseling in Annapolis, Md. She helps busy, overwhelmed men and women manage their anxiety and stress so they can live their lives with more ease, contentment and purpose. If you'd like to know more about how individual and group therapy can help ease anxiety and stress call me 410-339-1979. 

Photos by whoislimos and Anita Jankovic and Michael Browning on Unsplash

Managing Anxiety For The Long Game

I’ve struggled with anxiety for most of my life and I’ve gotten pretty good at managing it. I recognize many of my triggers and I plan ahead when I know I might encounter a situation that sets me off. I’ve learned self-compassion, so I’m not too hard on myself. I practice mindfulness for relaxation and greater awareness, and I continue with my own therapy.

When Anxiety Pops-Up Without Warning

But  my anxiety still pops up sometimes , seemingly for no reason. It’s as though my body decided all on its own to be anxious! So how do I prepare for that? The reality is that sometimes anxiety is triggered by an implicit or unconscious memory. When that happens, our bodies are responding to a memory we’re not even aware of. Most likely, it’s not an actual threat.

Anxiety can hit you when you're least expecting it

Anxiety can hit you when you're least expecting it

For me, the anxious response often happens when I’m just about to fall asleep. I’m relaxed, tired and so ready for sleep. I begin to slip into that dreamlike state when you think you’re awake but you’re actually between sleep and wakefulness. I’m all ready to drift off and suddenly I’m wide awake, my heart is pounding and I feel like something bad is about to happen. How the heck am I supposed to fall sleep feeling like that?

Anxiety that seems to come out of nowhere is common. I encounter it often when working with my clients. Many of them feel as though their anxiety is hiding, just waiting to spring when they’re least expecting it. When anxiety appears without an obvious reason, they feel like it’s controlling them.

Managing An Anxious Memory

Even though the anxiety stems from a memory, our body responds as if the threat is real. The trigger could be something as small as a sound, smell or touch of something that reminds you of a past experience that truly did feel threatening. So, how do you deal with a threat that’s not actually a threat?”

To first thing to do to help get through those unexpectedly anxious moments is to recognize that the anxiety was triggered by some memory from your past. You can even say to yourself out loud (if no one is around), “OK, Body. I hear you telling me that something just made you really anxious! I can feel it, but I know this isn’t about something that’s happening right now.” Saying it out loud, or even just in your head, reinforces the fact that the anxious experience popped up because your body remembered something from the past, not something that’s happening right now.

Next, take a few deep breaths. Slow, deep breathing can calm your anxious nervous system. If you’d like some practice with deep breathing exercises you can find out more here.

Feel your feet planted firmly on the ground

Feel your feet planted firmly on the ground

Then orient yourself in the present moment. You might be asking yourself right now, “What the heck does that mean?” It means I want you to bring yourself out of your head, where the worry is controlling your reactions, and into where you are physically  — right here, right now. It’s called grounding. Metaphorically speaking, I want you to feel like your feet are planted firmly on the ground at this very moment in time, as if they were the trunk of a tree, with the roots spreading out beneath you to steady you and keep you strong.

There are a lot of different grounding strategies. I’ve detailed some of them in a video here. One of the easiest techniques I’ve found that you can do anywhere is tapping your feet. Tap each foot, alternating them back and forth, for a minute. As you do it, really pay attention to the feel of your feet on the ground, the sound they make as they tap and how the movement feels throughout your body.

Another grounding technique is to bring awareness to your surroundings. Focus on the colors you see, the sounds you hear, things you can touch and how they feel in your hand, and the things you can smell and taste. This can be hard if you’re feeling extremely anxious. In those instances it can help to pay attention in a very specific way. It’s called 5,4,3,2,1. It goes like this: Notice 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you touch, 2 things you smell and 1 thing you taste. 

Bringing yourself back from the remembered state of anxiousness into the present, where there’s no apparent danger, can help your body relax and help your brain recognize that the memory was in the past. You’re here now in the present and you’re not in danger.

If your anxiety is pretty intense, you might have to repeat the grounding strategy for a few rounds, but these exercises should help soothe your anxious state.

Practicing mindfulness is a great way to bring a more present awareness into your daily life.  And being more present can help you manage your anxious feelings. Mindfulness groups are forming now in Annapolis and you can find out more here.

Elizabeth Cush, LCPC is a therapist and the owner of Progression Counseling in Annapolis, Md. She helps busy, overwhelmed men and women manage their anxiety and stress so they can live their lives with more ease, contentment and purpose. If you'd like to know more about how individual and group therapy can help ease anxiety and stress call me 410-339-1979. 

Photos by Alexandra Gorn  & by Ian Baldwin on Unsplash