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Implicit Memory and Healing Trauma Patterns

Somatic Therapy works with implicit and explicit memory, working both from a top down (thoughts) and bottoms up (sensation and feeling) model. However, it is the implicit memory and it's malleability which allows us to truly shift how we feel, which influences how we think. Trauma is stored in the implicit memory so working with the implicit is crucial for trauma recovery.

Implicit memory is sometimes referred to as unconscious or automatic memory. It is non-verbal, procedural, emotional, somatically based, and is retrieved unconsciously. Procedural memory is an example of implicit memory – you don’t have to relearn how to ride a bike or how to tie your shoes every day.

Explicit memory is sometimes called declarative memory. It is verbal, declarative (facts & events), episodic (recall of personal events and experience), and is consciously retrieved. Things like birthdates, addresses, math formulas, and what’s on your grocery list, are examples of explicit memory, as is being able to recount what you did this morning.

A day-to-day example of explicit memory is “This morning I had toast and jam for breakfast. I then made my bed, had a shower, got dressed, and went to work. It isn’t always right – did I make my bed before having my shower or after? But explicit memory is memory that is recalled.

An example of implicit memory is that I didn’t have to relearn how to use the toaster to make breakfast, I just knew how. I don’t remember when or how I learned how to use a toaster and yet, I can still do it.

Much of our anxiety, self doubt, negative thinking, and ruminating emerges from our implicit memory, a felt sense, often described as a nagging feeling, a sense of dread, or “waiting for the other shoe to drop”. Our thinking brain, the neo-cortex, loves to find meaning and context, so what began as a sensation, or a feeling makes it way up to what we recognize as a thought, a belief, or a story about ourselves or the world. A mistake we often make is trying to change a thought or behavior without shifting the physiology or implicit sea underneath it.

Trauma memories are often implicit due to the flooding of stress hormones such as cortisol which impacts how our brain codes and stores memory. Therefore, traumatic events can’t often be recalled fully and often are experienced more as sensation, feeling, emotion, posture, or perception.

Our implicit memory can be challenging to work with because by its very nature it’s unconscious but fortunately as mentioned previously, it is very malleable. Providing the body and the mind with new right brained experiences, (even imagined ones) can shift our implicit behaviors, this why the tools of SIBAM (sensation, image, behaviors, affect, meaning) from Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing works so well at shifting trauma patterns. Because trauma is stored in the right brain, we can’t shift it through thought alone making these tools indispensable.

If you are interested in exploring some practices for trauma recovery, please join me for “Embodiment & Boundaries.” The workshop series will take place in person in South Surrey beginning September 24. Please go here for more information or to register.

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