How Memories are Stored in the Body

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Memories don’t live just in your head, but in your body too.

Memory is a fascinating and complex topic. We all know that when it comes to memory our brains are not infallible record-keepers that perfectly capture facts, neatly filing them away until we decide to review them later on. Far from it.

We know that memory is a bit more subjective and imperfect than that. But how exactly does it work? And how is it possible for our memories to impact our physical health?

To understand memory, it’s important to know that there are two different ways our brains encode memories. These two types of memory are called explicit memory and implicit memory.

Explicit memory is the one people often think of when they’re talking about memory. Explicit memory is the type of memory you use when recalling facts, like remembering state capitals or what you ate for dinner last night. When you recall an event and it plays like a movie in your mind’s eye – that’s explicit memory. And it’s predominantly governed by part of the brain called the hippocampus.

Then there’s the type of memory you’re not as consciously aware of – it’s called implicit memory. Implicit memory is often experienced as a memory stored in our body, like the “muscle memory” of riding a bike that remains in your body even if it has been years since you last rode a bike. Implict memory is mediated by the amygdala (the hippocampus’ neighbor), which is a part of the brain intimately involved in processing emotions related to our survival (like fear).

Here’s another example of implicit memory: say you were in a car accident years ago where you heard screeching tires and the sound of a car horn, which were followed by pain and injury. Now when you hear the screech of tires or a car horn in traffic you feel your shoulders tense, your limbs brace, and you gasp hold your breath – the tensing, bracing, and breath-holding are the physical body memories left over from the accident (even if you’re not consciously recalling the details of the accident in your mind). This is implicit memory at work.

The amygdala doesn’t have a nuanced sense of time; it doesn’t distinguish between past and present when an implicit memory is activated. The amygdala signals in real-time, making the body memories feel just as real now as they were when the original incident occurred.

This is the principle at the core of understanding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This is why a veteran with PTSD from active combat will jump and feel a surge of adrenaline at the sound of fireworks exploding on the Fourth of July. Or why an assault-survivor will feel their body tense and prepare to run when they sense someone who looks/sounds/smells like their attacker. These stimuli are triggering the implicit memory encoded in the amygdala and producing a real-time physical response. These body memories come complete with changes in muscle activation, breathing, heart rate, sweating, stress hormones and more.

This is how memories of past experiences, encoded in our bodies, can have a very real impact on your physical body in the present. And it is possible to experience the physical expression of an implicit memory without having conscious awareness (explicit memory) of where it came from.

Of course, not all implicit memories are negative – some are positive and pleasurable. But if your body is holding implicit memories of stressful/dangerous experiences it can keep your body in a chronic state of stress and immune system activation and you may experience symptoms like: muscle tension (especially in the neck/shoulders, hips, or jaw), shallow breathing/trouble getting a full easy breath, trouble sleeping, digestive problems, weight gain, and other chronic health conditions.

If this sounds like you, don’t worry, there is some good news: it is possible to change these body-memories so that the triggering stimulus no longer produces the unwanted physical reaction. A great place to start is by finding a therapist who understands the mind-body connection or uses a trauma-informed approach (like Internal Family Systems or EMDR). Another great resource is the book Your Resonant Self by Sarah Peyton where you can learn more about body memories and the inner-workings of your brain and learn techniques to create ease in your body and mind.

Demystifying the Mind-Body Connection

The mind-body connection is getting a lot of attention these days. This connection is nothing new. We’ve all experienced it: when you’re sick or in pain your mood dips, when you’re having a stressful week you notice your shoulders are more tense.

But how is it all connected?

The answer is (sort of) simple. It’s your nervous system that acts as the bridge between mind and body. 

There are some other connections that are worth mentioning too, but for this article I’ll focus just on the nervous system.

When I say “nervous system” I’m referring to your brain, your spinal cord, and all of the nerves that branch off the spinal cord and run to all the structures in your body. These nerves are responsible for transmitting information. They move information in two directions: from the brain down to the body, and from the body up to the brain. You can think of it like a highway with cars on one side travelling north, and cars on the other side moving south.

Nerves signals running from the brain down to the body transmit “motor” information about how the brain wants the body to move or react. Example: the brain tells you to reach your hand out and grab the doorknob when you want to open a door. Nerve signals travelling in the other direction (from the body up to the brain) transmit “sensory” information about physical sensations. Example: as you sit outside on a hot day, nerves send signals up from your body to let your brain know that your body temperature is rising.

Any therapy or practice that works to influence how you feel by starting at the brain can be called a “top-down” approach. Example: mindfulness meditation can calm the nervous system by using the conscious brain to create ease in the breath and release tension from the body.

Any therapy or practice that influences the nervous system by working on the body can be called a “bottom-up” approach. Example: going for a run or getting a massage can shift your mood/mental state.

 “Top-down” and “bottom-up” approaches work differently, and both can effectively shift the state of your nervous system. You might notice that you have a preference for one or the other. To make big lasting changes in the state of our nervous system most people do best with a combination of both top-down and bottom-up strategies.

In my practice with patients, I find it most helpful to combine both top-down and bottom-up treatments to deepen and accelerate the healing process.

If you’d like to learn more about this topic and how it relates to trauma, I recommend the book The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, MD.

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Visceral Mobilization - bodywork for your organs.

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Here you are: you’ve put in the work to dial in your diet, you’re drinking plenty of water, and taking the (rather spendy) supplements your functional medicine practitioner prescribed, yet things just aren’t progressing the way you wish they would. Maybe you still have symptoms like bloating and abdominal discomfort, or anxiety and trouble sleeping, or even tension and pain in your muscles and joints. It’s possible that some of these symptoms could be coming from physical restrictions in your organs. This is when it may be a great idea to add in the support of a skilled bodyworker.

 

Can bodywork really help my organs?

 

            With the right approach - absolutely!

 

            Remember, just like muscles and ligaments, organs are physical structures made of living tissue that need to move well in order to function well. Each organ has its own unique physical properties, optimal location, particular way of moving, and specific relationships to other body parts.  When the physical structure of an organ is disrupted or altered in some way (for example, you’ve had a surgery, pregnancy, or physical injury like a fall or car accident) the function of the organ can be impacted. Vice versa: if the function of an organ has been impacted (by infections or chronic illness perhaps) the structure starts to change– often becoming tight and less mobile – thus further reducing its ability to function well. Bodywork known as “visceral mobilization” or “visceral manipulation” can help to restore the mobility of these organs, in much the same way that massage can help to restore the mobility of a tight muscle.

 

            To make it concrete, let’s take a moment to consider the structure of your intestines: they’re essentially just a very long muscular tube that runs from your stomach (just below the left ribcage) to your anus. This intestinal tube has a specific organization to it with an optimal location for each portion of the tube: the small intestine connects to your stomach and occupies the center of your abdomen, the large intestine wraps around it, running from just above your right hip in a clockwise direction across your upper abdomen under the ribcage, and down toward the left hip. Embedded at specific locations within the intestinal tract are several sphincters (small bands of muscle) that open and close to regulate the flow of food and digestive juices. The intestines are designed to move – in fact, they get massaged up and down by your diaphragm all day long as you breath in and out. But (don’t worry!) your intestines aren’t just floating around loose in your abdomen – they’re encased in special connective tissue that anchors them to your spine and nearby internal structures.

 

            Now imagine that something has disrupted the connective tissue around your intestines - perhaps you had a surgery (like an appendectomy, hernia repair, C-section, or back surgery) where things were moved out of their normal location and the connective tissue was cut or otherwise damaged. In the process of healing, your body (very wisely) will lay down scar tissue to repair the damage. Unfortunately, scar tissue isn’t as stretchy and pliable as the original tissue, and now the scarred area starts to lose its ability to move as freely as it once did. Over time, if the area doesn’t get the chance to stretch and regain its mobility (which usually requires targeted stretching/mobilization) it will continue to get tighter and denser forming little sticky spots or “adhesions” that bind down the organs (and surrounding tissue). Adhesions around the intestines start to restrict parts of your intestinal tract – kind of like having kinks in a hose – which makes it hard for food to pass through your intestines as easily as it once did. This can lead to digestive issues like constipation, bloating, abdominal pain, reflux, poor nutrient absorption, and hemorrhoids. It can even cause referred pain to your back, hips, and knees, or constitutional symptoms like fatigue and poor immune function.  Dysfunction of other abdominal organs like the liver, gall bladder, stomach, kidneys, etc. can cause similar issues or may contribute to other symptoms like acid reflux, headaches, sluggish detoxification, neck/upper back pain, shoulder pain, scoliosis, incontinence, nausea, and vomiting.

               

            Surgery or injuries aren’t the only way organ dysfunction can arise. Chronic stress, illness, infections, and exposure to high levels of toxins (including medications) can affect the organs and lead to less-than-optimal function. For example, say you have a sensitivity to a particular food, each time you eat this food it will irritate your stomach and intestines. Because the stomach and intestines are made of muscle, the irritation can cause muscle tension and spasming in your digestive tract. When the muscle spasms and constricts it not only impedes your digestion but signals to your nervous system that something is wrong. When the nervous system continuously registers this signal of distress, it begins to ramp you up into a state of fight or flight. When this is irritation of the digestive tract is ongoing, your nervous system and body can get stuck in fight or flight mode and lose the ability to return to a relaxed state. When you’re in this fight or flight state your body is getting signals (via stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol) to prioritize immediate survival by running or fighting, and it is not prioritizing resting, digesting, and healing. Once you get stuck in this stress-response loop, the cycle can be difficult to break, even once the offending irritant has been removed. This is where bodywork can be an essential tool in resetting the cycle by restoring normal function to the organ and getting the nervous system out of this distressed state.

 

This same cascade can happen with any organ that is in distress for any reason. This can manifest not only as physical symptoms but (since we have one nervous system that governs both our physical function and mental/emotional state) also as generalized anxiety, irritability, difficulty relaxing and resting, and a whole host of other stress symptoms.

 

 

That doesn’t sound good, how do I know if my organs need support?

 

In addition to the symptoms listed above, and generalized symptoms like chronic fatigue or brain fog, here are a few other indications that you may have something going on with an organ.

You have:

-          Pain/tension in your back, shoulders, or hips that doesn’t get much better with stretching, exercise, or massage.

-          Anxiety/stress that don’t seem to be related (or in proportion) to any particular events ot circumstances in your life.

-          Difficulty getting a full, easy breath without effort.

-          Points in your abdomen that feel tender to touch.

-          Symptoms that aren’t responding to other treatment protocols the way (or at the rate) you were expecting.

-          A history of significant accidents/injuries like a car accident, surgery, or a big fall/impact.

 

I have some of these things… what can I do?

 

            If you’re already working with a functional medicine practitioner, that is a great start! If you suspect you may have something going on with an organ it is always good to support both its function and its structure. To find someone who can support the structure through bodywork look for a practitioner who is trained in “visceral mobilization” or “visceral manipulation” which is an approach used to treat the internal organs through hands-on treatment. It can be practiced by a variety of practitioners including physical therapists, chiropractors, osteopaths, naturopaths, and massage therapists. This is a unique skill set and most bodyworkers have not been trained in this approach, so you will have to do some research to find a practitioner who does this work. It falls under the category of “manual therapy” so you may search for someone trained in that and ask if they are well-versed in working with the viscera.

 

What exactly is visceral mobilization…how does it work?

 

            Visceral mobilization originated from osteopathic medicine, which recognizes that all of the parts of the body must be moving well and be in good relationship to the rest of the body in order for the body as a whole to feel good and function well. When you work with a practitioner who understands this philosophy, they will look at your whole body (and consider all of your symptoms and medical history) to identify the root cause of your symptoms. Through their evaluation they will hone in on the parts of your body that are not moving optimally and use hands-on treatment techniques to restore optimal movement and alignment of the tissue in your body. This often feels like very gentle touch around the target organ, or sometimes firmer touch that feels like a massage.  Working with the organs in this way can restore optimal function of the organs and help to reset the nervous system, bringing it out of “fight/flight” and back to “rest/digest,” which restores the body’s natural ability to heal itself.

            When the root cause is identified and a finely-tuned treatment approach is used to correct the underlying cause, you may feel a response in your body relatively quickly.  Some people feel a change after one treatment session, and others may feel a shift after a few treatments.  How soon you feel a response to treatment (and how big the response is) depends on how severe the issue is, how long you’ve been experiencing it, as well as many other health/lifestyle factors.

             If you’re interested in exploring whether bodywork may be helpful for supporting your organs, find a practitioner in your area who is trained in Visceral Mobilization and call and ask if they have experience treating patients with symptoms similar to yours.

            The Barrall Institute offers trainings for health care practitioners to learn Visceral Manipulation and offers this simple explanation of Visceral Manipulation for people who want to know what it is:

http://www.discovervm.com/

What is Internal Family Systems?

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My focus as an integrative bodyworker is to support the health of the whole person: all body parts, all systems, all symptoms.  With this in mind, I strive to help restore balance and ease in both body and mind for all of my patients. In my last blog post I shared a bit about manual therapy – one of the main approaches I use to support the body and enhance physical health and well-being. In this post I’ll share a little about Internal Family Systems (IFS) - one of the primary modalities I use to support mental/emotional health.

IFS is a powerful, evidence-based, treatment modality primarily used by counselors and mental health therapists.

IFS was developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz, a Marriage and Family Therapist. Dr. Schwartz’s training as a family therapist gave him insight into the complexity of families (or “family systems”) and an understanding of how the beliefs, culture, and experiences of a family can influence the behavior and personalities of individual family members.  In healthy families with access to the resources they need, individual family members can thrive. At the other end of the spectrum, in families impacted by negative influences (such as poverty, discrimination, intergenerational trauma, etc.), the individuals are more likely to suffer from mental health issues and are more likely to demonstrate unhealthy behaviors. Instead of thriving, members of these families may get stuck in acting in ways that they don’t enjoy. For example, in a family where the parents abuse alcohol to cope with extreme stress or trauma, the children may take on roles such as the “scapegoat”, “rescuer”, or “rebel”. When stuck in these roles, these children don’t have the chance to explore their full potential, or the full range of their personalities and interests.  

When Dr. Schwartz applied this awareness to therapy with individuals, he found that his clients frequently spoke about different “parts” inside of them; these internal parts had their own personalities and roles and interacted with other parts similar to the ways individuals in a family interact. He began to listen to these internal parts and work with them the way he would with a family – this was the beginning of IFS.

The idea that all humans can have different facets of their personalities isn’t new. That concept, known as “multiplicity of mind,” has been seen before in the work of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and in many contemporary psychotherapy models. If you’ve noticed that your friends or family have different sides of their personalities that come out in different situations, you get the idea.  You’ve probably noticed it in yourself too. For example, you’ve likely had days when you were eager to go out and socialize with friends, followed by days where you just wanted to stay in an watch a movie at home alone… these two parts (the socializer, and the homebody) can co-exist within you, taking turns showing up depending on the circumstances.

What is unique about IFS is that it puts an emphasis on understanding on how the different internal parts function in relation to each other.  If the parts within you are functioning in relative harmony (like a healthy internal family) you likely feel pretty good and won’t be chronically plagued by devastating depression, anxiety, addiction, etc. If, however, these parts aren’t getting along and working well together -that’s when you may find yourself stuck in negative thought patterns, or repeating behaviors that you wish you could stop.

During the development of IFS, Dr. Schwartz found that there were three general categories of parts common to all people. There are the parts that help us get stuff done: known as “Managers.” Parts that carry old wounds from the past: called “Exiles” because we often push them down/send them away because their feelings of shame, guilt, fear, pain, etc. are very uncomfortable. And parts called “Firefighters” that jump in to stop us from feeling something very uncomfortable when we’re not ready for it (often by dissociating or distracting with numbing behaviors like drinking, binge eating, or over-working). Often our parts live below the level of conscious awareness and are executing their roles without a person recognizing which parts are surfacing at any given time.

To make this more concrete, here is an example of a hypothetical person, Susan, and her parts. Imagine that as a child Susan experienced harsh judgement and criticism from her father that left her feeling humiliated and full of shame. The shame and humiliation are incredibly uncomfortable feelings for her to bear, so she pushes them down and focuses her attention elsewhere, effectively creating an “Exile” part that is burdened with shame.  That Exile stays in the recesses of her subconscious mind, and as she grows up she has other parts that help her function in her daily life, including a part that is very focused on her outward appearance and what she eats. This part shows up as thoughts in her mind that tell her to exercise every day, diligently track the calories she consumes, and occasionally skip meals so she doesn’t gain weight. During stressful times, these thoughts creep in more frequently and with greater intensity until the exercise and calorie-counting become almost obsessive. These thoughts are from one of Susan’s managers. If asked, this Manager would say it is trying to help her avoid uncomfortable feelings of embarrassment and shame by maintaining a certain outward appearance in order to avoid the judgement of others. Sometimes, despite the Manager’s best efforts, those uncomfortable feelings start to surface, so another part jumps in and dowses those feelings by binging on potato chips, sweets, and other junk foods. You guessed it – that’s a Firefighter part. The Manager and the Firefigher seem at odds: one wants to meticulously control her food and exercise, and the other drives her to mindlessly consume large quantities of comfort foods, leaving Susan feeling at a loss, defeated, and overwhelmed.  Paradoxically, these two parts both want the same thing; they are both trying to prevent Susan from feeling the deep shame carried by the Exile in her system. The good news is that in IFS therapy Susan begins to learn how to identify and listen to these parts. Her therapist helps her connect to the Exile and free it from the heavy feelings of shame and humiliation. Once the Manager and Firefighter no longer have to work to keep the Exile’s uncomfortable feelings at bay, Susan works with them to find them new roles that feel supportive. She notices that her obsessive thoughts about calories and exercise diminish, she no longer finds herself binging, and she starts to enjoy eating again.

How is it possible to transform these parts and their behaviors? There’s one thing that sets IFS apart from other multiplicity of mind models and makes IFS incredibly effective: the Self.  According to the model of IFS, every person has a core Self. I often describe it as one’s highest wisest self. Most people have had some experience of being in a state of Self: it’s when you’re feeling open, loving, curious about the world around you, interested in connection, confident, courageous, and things seem to flow naturally with clarity and ease even in the face of a challenge. Self is expansive, patient, and wise.  It is this Self-energy that we all have within us that can help us heal.

In IFS therapy, the goal is to help the client gain greater access to their own Self in order to help the parts get what they need to heal. When a client has access to the inner wisdom of the Self they are able to find guidance and solutions that are exactly right for them, rather than relying on the therapist to advise or “fix” them.

As an IFS-trained practitioner, I love connecting clients to their own healing wisdom empowering them to find greater ease and flow in their lives. Stay tuned for future posts on how I integrate this with bodywork…

To learn more about IFS visit: https://selfleadership.org/

What is Manual Therapy?

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In my training as a physical therapist, it wasn’t until I discovered the art of manual therapy that my work transformed into something truly exciting and impactful.  The first time I saw a manual therapist treat a patient in pain, I knew I had to learn more – as I watched, the therapist read the patient’s body like a storybook or, more precisely, a biography. He sifted through the body’s twists and bends and layers of tension until he honed in on the root of his patient’s issue (which was not where I would have ever guessed it would be).  In one session, the therapist was able to unravel the tension and reorganize the twists and bends to change how the patient moved, felt, and looked. As I watched, the therapist seemed to me equal parts skilled clinician and expert magician. It was such an artful blend of applied anatomy and focused attunement to the patient- I’d never seen anything like it. In awe of how powerful and effective this approach was, that moment launched me into career-long study of manual therapy.

So, what exactly is Manual Therapy?

Manual therapy is a broad term that refers to hands-on treatment techniques where the practitioner is using their hands to specifically move or influence the tissues of your body. Manual therapy techniques include everything from joint mobilization/manipulation (think chiropractic adjustments), to soft tissue treatments like trigger point release and myofascial release, to craniosacral therapy, visceral mobilization (treating internal organs through touch), and more. It can be practiced by a number of different types of practitioners including: physical therapists, osteopaths, chiropractors, naturopaths, acupuncturists, and massage therapists. Manual therapy can take many different forms depending on the background of the clinician and the needs of the patient. It will always involve some form of therapeutic touch aimed at restoring normal movement of the physical structures of the body.

For many people, manual therapy is a great addition to their existing health regimen. It can be used for many different types of people with a variety of different health issues including:

  • Physical pain (anywhere in your body)

  • Tension/stiffness in muscles or joints

  • Headaches/migraines

  • Digestive issues (e.g. constipation, bloating, abdominal discomfort)

  • Trouble breathing

  • Pelvic floor issues

  • Recovery from surgery (even old surgeries you had a long time ago)

  • Recovery from injuries, falls, car accidents (even old ones)

  • Poor circulation/swelling

  • Symptoms of chronic illness

  • Stress/difficulty relaxing

If you want to know more about manual therapy or are curious to find out if it might be helpful for your body, ask for recommendations for a manual therapist from your other health care providers (or knowledgeable friends/family) and reach out to the manual therapist to see if they have experience treating people with your type of symptoms/history. As always, when adding a new practitioner to your team, trust your gut – if you get a good feeling about them, go ahead an make an appointment and listen to your body to let you know if it feels like a good fit.