Remembering Other Pre-PTSD Trauma

Post-traumatic stress disorder, the chronic kind, often follows previous traumas. My previous traumas include sexual abuse. While I have had no PTSD symptoms since December 2019 and can safely say I no longer meet the criteria and no longer have the disorder, my body still remembers other traumas. It remembered one today.

In 1999, I was in graduate school to become a teacher of English as a foreign language and my Master’s Essay was a definition of imitation. For this definition, I theorized the role of emotion in learning language to native-like fluency. And to get feedback from a neuroscientist on a hypothesis that the amygdala helps make impressions of language on the brain in the presence of stronger emotions, I visited the neuroscience lab at a local university and asked a certain professor. This neuroscientist was male, probably in his 40s, and had recently published papers on the topic of a physiological aspect of emotion. I am female — and was physically fit and in my 20s. At the very least, I hoped for something conceptual that might support this hypothesis, like a brief conversation or referral to some literature. In a prehistoric #MeToo moment, the man looked at me like an object and said simply, “I don’t know.” The moment was so unsettling, that afterward, every time I saw the man’s name as an author while researching, I became disgusted.

Today while doing research, I came across the man’s name and felt my body tense. At the moment, I did not recall where I had felt this before and I closed my eyes to practice somatic quieting, the process of Emotional Resolution®. My mouth clenched, my torso was frozen, my breathing nearly stopped, and I felt my leg muscles were frozen. As I observed these sensations, allowing them to change in a mindful letting go, an image of childhood appeared: Eight years old under the porch of my teenage neighbor, frozen while being molested.

Fortunately, I had worked through the guilt and shame associated with childhood sexual abuse many years ago and have been openly talking about it to whoever would benefit, since before 9/11. But my body still held memories. While I felt disgust, my body connected to a memory filled with confusion, embarrassment, and shame, emotions long-since resolved. The subconscious holds on to such information; neurons are connected by transmitters, the connections of which can be broken and reconnected through mindful quieting. Without reconnection, traumas pile up creating stronger pathways through the limbic system of the brain to behaviors that get us in trouble and to feelings that don’t need to be there. This reaction of freezing happened again and again through emerging adulthood. Though I did not freeze on 9/11, my body remembered freezing later, and I would learn to hyperventilate and sigh as an unconscious coping mechanism to this acquired anxiety reaction.

Now that I have quieted this freezing reaction, I can think of the neuroscientist without disgust. I can look at citations with his name and remember the meeting, but my body no longer reacts. I have very little, if any, emotion attached. For all I know, the man might have been stopping himself from doing something worse by not answering my questions. I do remember now that I felt powerful at the same time as feeling objectified. Such ambivalence can be confusing and create unnecessary relationship tensions. Better to mindfully let the body quiet it.

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