Physiological Distress or Body Memory
Just as symptoms of psychological distress are intrusive, so are physical signs of distress. Body memory refers to intense or prolonged physiological distress with an undetermined 'here-and-now' explanation. The physiological response to trauma is an intensely somatic experience. Some examples of the way that trauma manifests in the body are gastrointestinal pain, chest pain, light-headedness, tingling sensations, shortness of breath, and unspecified muscle pain. In recent years, luminaries in the field of traumatic stress have published excellent works highlighting the inter-dependent relationship between body and mind; wounding and recovery. Titles like The Body Keeps the Score (van der Kolk, 2014), The Body Bears the Burden (Scaer, 2007), The Body Remembers (Rothschild, 2000) and The Body Never Lies (Miller, 2006) are listed in the References.
As with all diagnostic processes, accurate understanding and interpretation is key to making progress. When such progress does not occur, both patients and clinicians can become frustrated. Sometimes each group blames the other out of this frustration. Medical folks begin to label the patient as a hypochondriac (versus a person with hypochondriasis) and blame the patient by dismissing the unexplained somatic symptoms as somaticizing. Don't misunderstand. Somatic symptom disorders are a true and painful class of disorders. However, not everyone with these somatic-type symptoms have a somatic disorder. Rachel was one such person. Rachel is a fifty-four-year-old African American woman who experienced chronic headaches since childhood. Every medical specialist she visited were stumped when it came to explaining her symptoms. The doctors had explored every possible organic explanation. They simply could not find any medical explanation for her symptoms.
Rachael began working with a therapist. She recalled having these headaches as a small child. Rachel began to make the connection between these headaches and extreme hunger. She recalled as a young child, she went for days, sometimes weeks at a time without having anything significant to eat, when the fierce headaches would begin. The therapeutic work clearly helped Rachel to notice that whenever she felt hungry or feared that she would run out of money, the headaches would intensify. Through her work with her therapist and a yoga teacher, Rachel began to manage her headaches so that they no longer controlled her life. The yoga teacher helped Rachel learn to use her breath as a self-soothing tool. This was an important piece of her recovery because she lacked the skills needed to tolerate, and allow to pass, unpleasant emotions.
Similar, unexplained, physical symptoms may interfere in children's lives. If a child complains of being sick all of the time but no physical cause can be found, don't be too quick to minimize the symptoms as 'attention-seeking.' In fact, this might be the body's way of getting the child's and caretaker's attention; in a sense, trying to sound the alarm that there is something emotionally wrong.