Treating Attachment Disorder in Adults: Stored Trauma Memories

By | 2017-01-02T05:55:26+00:00 January 2nd, 2017|

Treating attachment disorder in adults can’t be covered in its entirety with one article, so here’s one that focuses on stored trauma memories.

Relational trauma is at the root of all attachment disorder, and today we are going to look at how trauma is stored in our bodies and brains. Releasing stored trauma is an essential component for treating attachment disorder in adults.

There can be many different causes and contributing factors to the development of relational trauma and attachment disorder. For example, one’s biology can create an internal physiology that is more prone to relational trauma through physical pain or increased baseline emotional dysregulation. Other times, the relational trauma is caused by a primary inadequacy of the primary caregiver to provide adequately for an infant’s physical, emotional, and social needs.

No matter what the cause and contributing factors to the development of the relational trauma and subsequent attachment disorder are, trauma is stored as a biological memory in the brain and body. This biological memory continues to play out in one’s physiology, often recreating traumatic events and in the case of attachment disorder, recreating scenarios in which one will be found unwanted, unlovable, and rejected.

Why would our brains and bodies store trauma if it has long-term negative effects? From a psychological standpoint, it is a strong survival mechanism. The point of storing the trauma is actually quite useful, because it allows one to learn from that situation and protect one’s self from having to experience that again.

You can see though, as an adult wanting to heal from attachment disorder, earn a secure attachment, and break the on-going cycle of poor relationships and self-destructive behaviors this stored trauma needs to released.

How is it that trauma is stored in the brain and body? Where is it stored? How do we uncover and release stored trauma? What changes happen after trauma is released? These are the questions we are going to answer today!

How Is It That Trauma Is Stored in the Brain and Body?

By definition, trauma is an experience that is overwhelming to one’s system. A trauma is a stressful event multiplied, where the experience is felt to be a threat to one’s very survival. Thus, it is the degree of the emotional response that defines whether an event is traumatic or just stressful. This is why the same situation can result in PTSD for some, but not others.

This type of emotional response is played out in one’s physiology, specifically in the nervous system. Because this experience is felt to be a threat to one’s life, the brain and body flood the nervous system with signals to switch into survival mode, characterized by fight, flight, or freeze. By the nervous system switching into survival mode it causes the traumatic event to get stored in one’s biology. Until it is released, the biology in the sensory and memory parts of the brain, as well as, in the nerves and tissues are primed for stress, survival, and self-protection.

Where Is Trauma Stored? 

Trauma is stored wherever the survival systems get turned on. As in the words of Peter Levine’s book, Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past, “Trauma shocks the brain, stuns the mind, and freezes the body.”

We have survival systems that play out in the brain, as well as, the body; thus trauma is stored in both the brain and the body.

In the brain, trauma seems to be stored mostly in the amygdala where it can be quickly accessed in the future. Access to the amygdala is through our senses and completely bypasses the frontal cortex, allowing it to be accessed in a matter of milliseconds without requiring conscious thought to analyze or think through the situation. This is why and how one’s survival instincts can help protect someone in the future with any type of sound, sight, smell, or feeling that was at all associated with the traumatic event.

In the body, one’s survival response is carried first through the sympathetic nerves that go to all muscles and internal organs. They are going to run fast, turn on the adrenal glands to produce adrenalin, and shut down our digestion and all other non-essential processes.

Not only is trauma stored in one’s sympathetic nerves, muscles, and organs, but also stored in one’s parasympathetic nerves. If fighting or fleeing is unsuccessful in the attempt to survive, then one’s amazing brain will switch into freeze mode, in order to try to survive the event. Freeze mode involves a massive flood through one branch of the vagus nerve, the primary communication nerve between the body and the brain.

To summarize, the survival response involves the brain deciding on instinct on how best to survive, changing the physiology of the nervous system, the muscles, and body organs all work in coordinated effort to survive. All of the changing areas within the body, where the physiology has been affected, now have biological memory of the trauma and the survival response.

How Do We Release Stored Trauma?

It is clear that this trauma is stored on the biological level with physiological effects. Understand that this is not just psychological where a simple solution of changing the way one thinks will change the way one feels; it is, literally, the opposite when it comes to stored trauma. Meaning, by changing the way one feels (by changing one’s physiology) will change the way one thinks.

Therapies that utilize the frontal cortex, talk about the trauma, and discuss our continued reaction to the trauma, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, will have limited effectiveness. The primary location of the stored trauma is on a biological level, not a psychological level. By this point, one’s physiology will have already been triggered and will be in full survival mode before the higher functions of one’s mind and thoughts can control his or her reactions.

So, if cognitive behavioral therapy and psychological interventions that utilize language and thoughts, won’t release stored trauma, how is the trauma released?

Since the trauma is stored as both physiology in the muscles, nerves, and organs, as well as sensory associations in the brain sensory and memory organs, there are different methods that target either the brain or the body.

What are ways to release stored trauma in the body’s physiology? If we think for a minute of trauma as the actual energy that flows through the nervous system in the fight or flight response, it helps us see how to release this stored trauma.

The most powerful interventions are the ones that target the muscles and sympathetic nerves in the pelvis. This can be done through somatic experiencing, trauma yoga, and psoas muscle massage.

There are general interventions that will also be helpful, though not as effective. These include biofeedback like HeartMath, meditation, yoga, massage, and deep breathing exercises. Dietary supplements such as, GABA and L-Theanine, can also be helpful general interventions that can calm the nervous system down.

What are ways to release stored trauma in the brain’s sensory and memory organs? Interestingly enough, it is not necessary to have factual memory of the event to release stored trauma. Trauma can be released from the stored memory and sensory brain structures through therapy that accesses the felt experience and the associated sensory stimuli.

Instinctual Trauma Response Model is an intervention that specifically targets the brain’s sensory and memory structures where trauma is stored in a gentle, non-traumatizing and healing way. After this therap, many people find immediate relief from PTSD symptoms and improved relationship skills. EMDR and Neurofeedback, including LENS, have both been very helpful interventions that help release stored trauma in the brain.

What Changes Happen After Stored Trauma Is Released?

The biggest change people experience after stored trauma is released in a sense of deep relaxation that feels natural. This happens because the autonomic nervous system has calmed down and is no longer on subconscious high alert and is no longer in self-defensive mode. Some people experience a reduction or resolution of their chronic pain and other chronic physical symptoms that have been associated with prior traumatic events.

One of the most important effects of releasing stored trauma is the body’s ability to better heal itself after injuries. No longer needing to stay in survival physiology, it now has the energy to use towards healing itself.

Have you seen patterns of recreating certain traumatic relationships or events in your life?

What have been effective body-based therapies for you to heal?

What have you found helpful to reset your memory system so you don’t repeat self-sabotaging behaviors?

I welcome your comments!  Please share!


Dr. Aimie


  1. Tricia October 7, 2017 at 6:40 am - Reply

    Is it true that emdr also clears the body? Or only the brain? Should a person do emdr AND somatic techniques in order to fully clear the trauma?

    • Dr. Aimie Apigian October 11, 2017 at 10:13 am - Reply

      Hi Tricia,
      Good questions! Many people have found EMDR helpful in their trauma recovery work. EMDR is useful for resetting some of the brain communication pathways derailed by trauma. It seems very good at disconnecting negative emotional reactions to memories or current situations. I think EMDR can be a great tool in trauma recovery work!

      Saying that, I have not seen EMDR be enough by itself for healing from trauma. In my personal and clinical experience, I have seen
      it be more useful for adults than children, and not helpful for everyone, because some people have had no response.

      You ask about doing both EMDR and somatic techniques. Yes, I think a combination of different tools will give somebody the best response. However, with a word of caution, that if too much is done too fast, the system gets overwhelmed and shuts down. Really listening to the body and seeing what happens after sessions is important to pick the right pace, especially if you have a lot of other life responsibilities and can’t “fall apart” for a time.

      I generally recommend a person start with the tool that would address their most disruptive symptom from their trauma history. Decide if the somatic or psychological symptoms disrupt your life more, than pick the tool that would address the most pressing issue first. Once that is under better control, you go to the next level or most disruptive symptom. There are lots of tools: Somatic Experiencing or other Somatic Work, Biofeedback (like Heartmath), Neurofeedback, EMDR and ITRM (Instinctual Trauma Response Model). From the beginning, I would encourage a person to also be looking at their biology to make sure that is optimized since healing will occur much faster if the biology is optimized. Check metal and vitamin levels, get genetics analyzed especially for methylation problems, and even look at hormones, brain neurotransmitters, and consider if toxins, mold or chronic Lyme disease might be possibilities.

      I hope this helps!

      Dr. Aimie

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