She’d come to me for EMDR because her panic response at work, specifically in her large tech company’s town hall meetings – a gathering of 600+ employees in one, big dimly-lit auditorium-like room – was starting to impede her goals for promotion at her company.
She didn’t have a history of claustrophobia or performance anxiety and was at a loss as to why she would be reacting so strong, so negatively.
Despite the normalcy of this regular event, despite being surrounded by her work friends and being in a totally beautiful and comfortable space, each time the meeting started she would get so anxious that she would breathe rapidly, sweat, feel dizzy, and later be unable to recall any of the critical information shared when her manager called her team together after, leaving her looking like she wasn’t paying attention and taking things seriously.
She was bright, academically and professionally accomplished and first-gen.
She had broken the poverty and education cycles of her family to get to where she was today and she felt pressure and desire to scale the ranks at her company, let alone maintain her job.
She was desperate to solve this problematic response she kept having and didn’t understand.
“No,” I said to her. “I don’t think you’re crazy. I think you might be having a feeling memory.”
Trauma memories are stored differently than “regular” memories.
What’s a “feeling memory”? A memory is just a memory, isn’t it?
Contributions from the “triune brain” model theory combined with traumatology advancements and neuroscience research reveal that we, in essence, have three major parts to our brains, each with different functions that can contribute to how we form, store, and express memories:
- The frontal lobes. What we might call our “thinking brain” controls all of our high cognitive, executive functioning skills like impulse control, problem-solving, social interaction, and self-organizing.
- The limbic system. What we might call our “mammalian brain” controls our emotional states, our social responses related to survival, and processing memory.
- The brainstem. What we might call our “reptilian brain” controls our baseline instinctive responses such as breathing and heart rate.
When a non-threatening experience happens—like attending a really great Halloween party at your child’s preschool—your frontal lobes likely stay online along with your limbic system and brainstem.
So, years, later, you may have a memory that has a narrative: “It was so fun! We all dressed up like ducks and did the Wiggle dance with all the other parents and kids in costume. I still think of that memory every time I smell fruit punch because my daughter spilled her sippy cup of it down the inside of my costume.”
And, indeed, each time you smell fruit punch, a smile comes to your face as your brain and body remember that time: You have a “feeling memory” and a narrative memory associated with it.
However, when a real (or perceived) threat occurs to us, our frontal lobes—the prefrontal cortex—may “shut down” as a self-protective measure while our brainstem and limbic system remain online, feeling and responding.
So the threat or trauma of that moment/experience isn’t then stored in the prefrontal cortex as a cohesive narrative (which would be possible if the prefrontal cortex—the thinking, wordy, higher-cognitive-function region of the brain still had primacy); instead, that experience is stored as a set of feeling and somatic responses lacking a cohesive narrative.
In other words, your body will remember the experience with sensations, not words.
This means that, after the threat passes—perhaps very long after the threat passes—you can be going about your life until perhaps some confluence of events and circumstances “reminds” your amygdala of the long-ago threat despite the content and context being radically different.
As the great trauma psychotherapist Janina Fisher, Ph.D. says in her excellent resource The Living Legacy of Trauma flipchart, “we remember trauma with our feelings and our bodies.”
In other words, you may not have concrete memories of the trauma, but you can have strong somatic and emotional arousal, recall, and trigger responses to unconscious and conscious reminders of your traumatic experiences.
The American Psychological Association describes this phenomenon as an “emotional memory” but in my work with trauma clients, I’ve come to call this kind of response a “feeling memory.”
“Feeling memories” can be destabilizing and scary, and feel completely random when you can’t connect them to anything you concretely remember. And they can come out of nowhere with seemingly “ordinary” events as we move through our days and years.
Some examples of trauma-informed feeling memories:
Feeling memories can feel destabilizing, scary, and completely random when you can’t connect them to anything you concretely remember. And they can come out of nowhere with seemingly “ordinary” events as we move through our days and years.
- A woman feels intense queasiness when hearing her husband take his leather belt out of jean pants loops, despite him never ever hurting a fly and being a deeply kind man. The sound of the leather being pulled out of jean loops makes her sick to her stomach.
- A man, recently returned from deployment, visits Costco on a Saturday morning and starts to have a panic attack in the aisles of nuts and protein bars.
- Another otherwise vibrant woman falls into a deep depression when the California wildfire season arrives and has to cancel her weekend plans and stay inside several weeks in a row.
In each of these cases, as well as the intro at the beginning of this essay, the individual experiencing these feeling memories may feel “crazy” for having such strong responses to seemingly innocuous events, events that don’t seem to threaten their life and well-being and yet are still somehow evoking large responses.
But none of these people are “crazy” (a term I would never actually use, FYI); they’re having feeling memories of traumatic events that they narratively can’t recall.
- The woman who gets queasy hearing the sound of the belt has blocked out childhood memories of her alcoholic father whipping her older brother with his leather belt and being made to watch the whipping as her punishment. Cognitively she can’t yet recall those memories in her trauma recovery journey, but her body remembers and has a strong response to the very sound of a leather belt leaving jean loops no matter how kind the individual is who is wearing them.
- The man is experiencing panic attacks are a result of the somatic memories of being surrounded by chaos and feeling stuck, something he experienced while serving in the military but an experience that’s also mirrored and mimicked in the aisles of Costco on a Saturday morning (especially on sample aisles).
- The body of the woman who falls into a deep depression around wildfire season time is implicitly remembering other times in her early life when she would have to cancel plans and be trapped inside with her suicidal, personality disordered mother, freedoms yanked away, danger felt like it was everywhere.
- And as for the young woman who was experiencing panic and flight responses in the town hall meetings, she didn’t know it cognitively and narratively when we began working together but what surfaced in our work was a childhood memory of being molested in the movie theater by an Uncle who took her and a group of cousins to see a film. She had repressed the memory but her body still has strong feeling responses to a space that triggered the implicit feeling memory of that traumatic experience: a dim, dark, cool auditorium-like space, surrounded by people she thought she could trust and still having danger happen to her while everyone paid attention to what was happening in the front of the room.
So if you see yourself in any of these examples, if you, too, have ever had any “feeling memories” that made you feel “crazy” because they seemed to make no sense, I want to reiterate the title of this essay, “You’re not crazy. It’s a feeling memory.”
How do we heal and overcome trauma-informed feeling memories?
Now, the very important question: how do we heal and help you overcome feeling memories if you do experience this and if you do see yourself in this essay?
A good trauma therapist will work from a stabilization model and, as part of the first phase of this work, will help your brain understand that you are safe in the here and now and that the past is over despite the unconscious triggering.
We can do this by helping you activate your prefrontal cortex so you can observe your trigger, your feeling memory, label your emotions as memory, and help your limbic system understand that you’re safe and not in danger.
I teach many prefrontal cortex activating tools in my course – Hard Families, Good Boundaries – because, let’s face it, even 15, 20, or 30 years later after you leave your childhood home, your family of origin can catalyze strong body-based feeling responses, even when it “doesn’t make sense”).
Here’s one sample of a tool from my course to help activate your prefrontal cortex.
Counting Backward. With a Twist.
One of my favorite tools to use on myself (or to use with someone else who is emotionally flooded and unable to access their prefrontal cortex) is to count backward.
But not just any counting backward — anyone can basically recite 100, 99, 98, 97, etc. without much concentration or effort.
What we want you to do instead is to pick a big number like 637 and then pick an odd, random number like 19.5 and start counting backward to zero from 637 by 19.5.
(Did you just frown in concentration reading those words? That’s exactly the point!).
Focused efforts to actually try and do that math engages your prefrontal cortex in a way that can not only distract from the emotional flooding you may have been experiencing but also help your prefrontal lobes to come “back online” and notice that you’re safe, rather in danger.
What I also love about this tool is that it’s subtle and invisible – you can practice it while in a town hall meeting at work, on an airplane, or out at a restaurant with a group of friends and won’t be noticed when you do it (as opposed to, say, getting up and doing 20 jumping jacks to dispel the energy of your nervous system).
Again, counting backward with a twist is a tool that can be wonderful for activating the prefrontal cortex and “coming back online” when you are having strong, feeling memories that “don’t seem to make sense.”
This is one of just dozens of tools and interventions I teach in my course Hard Families, Good Boundaries (really, a Trojan Horse of a course designed to not only support you in boundary setting but also to support you in emotional regulation and childhood trauma recovery).
And if you live in the state of California and saw yourself in today’s essay and thought, “Oh my gosh, I think my feeling memories get activated a lot and it’s getting in the way of my life.” I would love it if either myself or my team of Certified EMDR therapists at my boutique, trauma-informed therapy center – Evergreen Counseling – could be of support to you.
With EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), you don’t have to remember the details of your traumatic memories. You don’t even have to be aware of them at all.
All you have to do is have a sense of what triggers those feeling memories in you as you move through the world (town hall meetings, Costco, leather belts and jean loops, being stuck inside because of the weather or climate, etc).
We call these your “triggers” and you don’t need to have memories consciously associated with them to do powerful, transformative healing work on your triggers. (This is just one of the reasons I love EMDR so much!)
So if you saw yourself in today’s essay, please get in touch and my center’s clinical intake coordinator will set up a completely complimentary 20-minute call with you to help you get set up with EMDR therapy so we can help you reduce the impact those destabilizing feeling memories are having in your life.
Now I’d love to hear from you in the comments below:
Do you – like the woman who came to me for EMDR – ever feel “crazy” for having strong emotions that seem “random”? After reading today’s essay does any “feeling memory” make more sense to you? What’s one of your favorite pre-frontal cortex activating tools when you need to have your frontal lobes come back online?
If you feel so inclined, please leave a message in the comments below so our community of 20,000 blog readers can benefit from your wisdom.
And, until next time, please make sure to take good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.