The Body Keeps Score


I have a friend who see themselves in the worst way. It puzzles me because over the years, this friend has been kind, generous, thoughtful, and selfless in ways that have delighted me. This friend thinks they have done something horrible to hurt me. And even though I have memory issues, my body remembers when someone has hurt me before.

The body keeps score. It’s one of the many beautiful ways our brain has evolved to keep us safe. Even when we may not consciously remember a traumatic event, the body will respond to people, places, and things that remind us of that event – we call those “triggers.”

If you’ve ever been in a car crash, you probably know what I’m talking about. It’s that sensation of heightened awareness when you see or hear something that reminds you of the crash. It could be an intersection, the color of another car, or the way the vehicle in front of you stops abruptly. For me, it manifests physically as a high-vibrational sensation that resonates through my entire body and ends with a tingling in my toes as my foot hovers over the break. It feels as though all my nerves are ready to rapid-fire should the trigger need to be pulled.

I recall a more personal experience relating to sexual assault. I entered a bar sharing some similarities to the one in which I had been served a drink spiked with a drug. But this was a different bar, in a different town, with different people. And even though I knew without a doubt that my drink was safe (I watched the bartender like a hawk as he poured it) my body was still responding to the environment. It was crowed and loud in there… just like it was in that other bar year ago. I felt claustrophobic and confined. Then I had a panic attack.

In my body, the first symptom I notice is a tightness in my throat and jaw making it difficult to speak. Sometimes I cannot speak at all. When I do try to talk, my voice squeaks out softly and sometimes I stutter. Then I feel a tightness in my chest and a churning in my stomach. My limbs feel like they are on fire. I am in fight-or-flight mode and ready to spring into action should a threat materialize. The sensations I feel in my body are very real – even if the threat isn’t.

Because my body keeps score, I couldn’t consciously recognize the differences in the situation – I could only feel how similar it felt and sensed that I was in danger. So I stepped outside, removing myself from the perceived threat. Immediately I felt my throat loosen, my heart-rate slow, and my stomach return to calm. With a few stretches and some pacing, my arms and legs, hands and feet, returned to normality.

So back to this friend who is convinced they hurt me. I don’t think they did – and certainly not in the manner in which they confessed to me. First of all, if this person did what they think they did – such a person would never tell me in the first place. They would keep their transgression completely hidden in the dark. But that’s not what this person did – they told me how they think they hurt me.

Secondly, my body would tell me if they had really hurt me so deeply. But whenever I am in the presence of this person, I feel at ease. I laugh easily at our jokes. I feel relaxed without any tingling in my extremities or churning stomach symptoms. Much to my delight, we even sing together – there is no way I could sing if my throat and jaw were tightening up. There is no reptilian response – no shift in to fight-or-flight mode. My body keeps score and even after spending several hours together in a confined space with this person, I felt no sense of threat on any level. If they had hurt me, it’s a hurt my psyche has long-since forgiven.

And this leaves me puzzled at why this friend would think themselves capable of such a monstrous thing. The only answer I can dredge up stems from my own experience dealing with negative self-perception. A negative self-concept can be used like emotional armor. If I think the worst of myself, then anything anybody else thinks of me can’t possibly hurt. If I fill my head with negative self-talk, then anything anybody else says will bounce right off me because I’ve heard it all before from within. Sometimes we need the protection of that armor. But more often than not, we continue to wear it long past the time it was necessary – and that is to our detriment.

It is difficult to be happy when someone is being so mean to you… especially when that someone is yourself. You can’t escape the chatter in your head, but with patience, practice, and sometimes with professional help – you can challenge those negative thoughts and you can learn to change your inner dialogue.

I hope my friend does that someday. They are not the monster they perceive themselves to be. This person really is kind. This person truly is generous. This person is both thoughtful and selfless. And both my mind and my body know they are not capable of hurting me they way they think they have done – because the body keeps score. Whatever wrong they thing they have done to me is fully forgiven. I hope someday you can forgive and accept yourself for simply being human.



What are body memories?


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