Body and Emotional Memory

“When I resist in any way, I am really stepping out of spaciousness. When I rest in whatever is arising, without resistance, whether it is an opaque emotion or not, then I am not outside of that spaciousness.” ~Aneeta Makena


            It’s taken Tom and I months to tame the little black and white feral cat in our backyard. She started showing upon our back step in the middle of winter. We would open the door and give her some food and she would rush up to the bowl, hiss at us, grab a piece of meat and rush off snarling. Gradually she got a little less reactive and slowly started trusting us, until she could actually eat her bowl of food on the back step without running off after each grabbed morsel. And then came the day that she tolerated being touched. After that she rapidly become the sweetest, most affectionate little cat rubbing up against us, purring and sitting on our laps demanding lots of affection. She even reluctantly put up with us us cutting out the matted knots of fur behind her ears. No more than a teenager, it was soon apparent that some bad boy had knocked her up! We could tell when she had the kittens but did not know where they were until a couple of weeks ago, when she carried them up the patio stairs from the woodpile and presented them to us on the back step – 4adorable little fluff balls, two black and two black and white. At first she wouldn’t let us touch them but within a couple of days mama cat and the four kittens were toddling into the kitchen for their expensive kitten food and not really wanting to leave!

            They have all been hanging out on the back patio, and have been as tame and trusting as any housecat until two days ago when we came home and found her in a terrible state of agitation with the kittens nowhere in sight. Fearful that a redtail hawk or a fox had gotten them, we were feeling sick to our stomachs. Mommy cat was restless, meowing, coming up to us and then rushing off again. We sat out of the patio with her and she gradually settled down and finally called the kittens out of hiding. We were so relieved.

            It is fascinating to me, that I did not doubt for one second that something had threatened her life and that she was in a state of hyper-arousal. She couldn’t tell me the facts, explain the event, tell me what had attacked her. She didn’t have to, I believed her body and her actions. Her body was showing me the memory of what had happened. Whether this was a hawk, a fox, or a dog, is irrelevant to the experience she had. That she had a terrifying experience was self evident.

            And yet, when our own bodies react this way with emotion and reactivity we tell ourselves that it is ridiculous, wrong, uncalled for, neurotic, babyish, that we are being sissies, that there is no reason for the feelings. And if we cannot produce some kind of intellectual understanding, come up with data and facts as memory, details and dates of the event that happened, we dismiss that anything happened at all. We fail to recognize that our emotions and our bodily reactions are themselves memories of an event that frightened and hurt us. I am quite sure that my little cat would go into hyper-arousal again if she got any hint of the threat that happened a few days ago – a loud noise, a shadow overhead, me coming up on her unexpectedly… anything could activate the memory of what happened in her emotional body. She has no intellectual memory of this, but she remembers in every cell of her body.

            Emotions are memories. All of what has happened to us through the course of our lives is faithfully recorded in the body, waiting for us to recognize, accept and bring our loving attention to the suffering. 

            Just as one would immediately recognize the terror of a little animal and approach it with concern, curiosity, calmly, gently and kindly, so too should we approach our own animal, emotional body that holds the past memory of trauma, insult, hurt and threat, in the same way.

            We have learnt to ignore emotional and body memory and believe only factual, intellectual, image, memory – and yet at the time of trauma, the brain is very often turned off, in a state of shock and denial, dissociation and distancing. Our eyes often close during trauma. I just have to think of being on a roller coaster – I do not see anything, my eyes are shut tight and I am clinging on for dear life. The memory of the ride is recorded, however in my body – dizzy, nauseous and terrified! And one little drop on an airplane ride is all that is required to awaken the full body memory, even though I am not afraid of flying. The brain is not our most reliable source of memory. Our body and emotions are.


            Another way we dismiss our emotions is that we do not recognize threat – it has been normalized and excused, rationalized, minimized and denied by the perpetrators of abuse.

            When a child cries because it shamed a parent often get’s angry and states, “I will give you something to cry about – you have nothing to cry about.” Or you hurt yourself, and when you cry you are told, it is not that bad…Nothing happened – we just made it up!

            No wonder we think our feelings are not valid indicators of what is actually occurring, or has occurred – and this is just one mild, albeit pervasive, example of how what happened is denied. So when feelings resurface through some present trigger, we immediately doubt them, deny them, do not notice them or do any of the things we were taught to do – not believe this is memory and not believe that something actually DID happen.

            Recovery work requires us to start learning to pay very close attention to even the subtlest feelings and body sensations. Sometimes they are about the present, but mostly they are about the past. The present can activate the memory, remind us of the past and open a doorway into healing the suffering of our past, when our nervous system, our understanding and perspective of the world was very limited in coping with the difficulties of life and relationships. To dismiss our feelings, or blame them on the current situation is to miss the opportunity for deep self-reflection and processing of the past, which can bring awareness and a new sense of peace and freedom.


“The moment you learn to welcome even suffering, a very rapid transformation happens. It can sometimes be instant; when you totally welcome the pain, it turns around. One could do it with fear: fear arising, fear without the story, and all of a sudden what once was fear is intense aliveness.”

                                                                                                                                               ~Eckhart Tolle



© Lyndall Johnson