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How to Release the Painful Memories and Emotions Stored in Your Body

Man on the beach

“The cure for the pain is in the pain.” ~Rumi

Your body keeps a physical memory of all of your experiences.

You have lots of memories stored in your brain that you can recount at any given moment. You can recall names, faces, where the event took place, what it smelled like. But over time, these memories fade or change as time passes and we mature. However, even when the memory begins to fade from your brain, it lives on in your body in the form of physical sensations and behavior patterns.

The body doesn't forget.

The events of our lives leave physiological imprints in our bodies, especially when we experience trauma or situations of extreme stress that cause the body to fight, flee, or freeze in order to cope.

In a perfect world, we would be able to release the trauma or soothe the stress response soon after it was triggered. But we don't live in a perfect world, so we're all walking around with physical imprints of past experiences (good and bad) stored in our bodies. Most of us don't know how to release them because we don't even realize they exist!

You may feel your body tense up when you have to ask for help or borrow money, or your face may get hot when you're asked to speak in front of a crowd. The sensation is your body remembering.

It's remembering a past experience when you asked for help and it didn't go well. Maybe someone made you feel ashamed because you “should be able to handle it yourself.” Perhaps you were called to the front of your third grade class and asked a question you didn't know the answer to, so you felt embarrassed and humiliated.

The body doesn't have words to express itself, so it responds with physical sensations.

You can forget, block, or intellectualize the memories that are stored in our brains, but how do you work through the memories being stored in your body?

Animals shake when they experience trauma or anxiety. Think of a dog who's been in a fight with another dog: Once the fight is over, both dogs will shake to calm their nervous systems and quiet the fight, flight, or freeze response. This enables them to move on without the physical memory of the situation.

Humans, however, don't naturally do this. Instead we carry our stress, anxiety, and trauma around with us every day and use food and other addictive behaviors to soothe ourselves and quiet the emotional discomfort.

There's nothing wrong with turning to food or other means to soothe yourself, but typically habitual behaviors provide a short-term solution, and you'll continue to feel the discomfort until you release the memory from your body.

I am a recovering sugar addict. I used to stuff myself with cake, cookies, and ice cream any time I felt sad, angry, or alone. The sugar high helped me cope with difficult emotions and soothed the pain of a childhood marred with stress and abuse.

It was a behavior that eventually made me sick. Chronic yeast infections, migraines, and fatigue were the norm for ten years before I realized sugar was making me sick. I eliminated it from my diet, but the changes in my physical health were minimal.

In order to truly heal my body, I had to address the emotional issues that caused me to self-medicate with food. I did this by creating an emotional tool-kit.

In order to release the emotions and create a more peaceful state of being, it's important to create an emotional tool-kit to help regulate your nervous system and soothe the discomfort.

The first tool to put in your emotional tool-kit: non-judgment

When you feel emotionally triggered and tempted to turn to food or other addictive behaviors for comfort, try not to judge the reaction. Our bodies are programmed to seek pleasure, not discomfort, so it’s natural to try and find something to soothe the pain and make yourself feel better.

The need to soothe yourself with food or other means doesn't make you a bad person—it makes you human.

The second tool in your emotional tool-kit: permission

Give yourself permission to feel—you have to feel it to heal it.

Often the reason we feel the need to numb what we're feeling is because we believe that the emotion we're feeling isn't allowed. We think we're not allowed to be angry or we're supposed to be strong, so we can't cry.

Giving yourself permission to feel allows you to have power over it—you control it instead of allowing it to control you, and in the process you create the space to heal.

The healing process will bring up lots of different feelings and emotions; many will be uncomfortable. When these uncomfortable emotions come up, allow them to come up without becoming attached to them; notice them for what they are and know that there is a natural ebb and flow to them.

It may be horribly uncomfortable initially, but allow yourself to witness them without judgment or reaction. This will allow you to respond objectively. Feelings aren’t forever. They come and go—if you let them.

The third tool in your emotional tool-kit: release

Now that you’ve allowed yourself to feel, it’s time to release the emotion from your body.

You can do this by gently shaking. Start with your feet and work your way up, one body part at a time, or you can turn on a song that mirrors the way you’re feeling and sing, dance, or cry until you feel physically and emotionally satisfied. All of these things will help give the emotion a voice and move the emotion out of your body.

Not quite ready to move your body? Grab a journal and write. No filter, no editing; leave the anger, frustration, sadness, and anything else you’re feeling on the page. Feel free to tear or safely burn the pages when you’re done as a symbolic release.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all way to release. There will be times when moving your body helps, and other times singing or writing will feel more effective. Choose the method that feels best to you in the moment.

The fourth tool in your emotional tool-kit: forgiveness

This is the most important tool in your tool-kit. In order to truly heal, you have to be able to forgive yourself.

Beating yourself up for past transgressions isn't productive, and certainly doesn't make you feel good about yourself.

Understand that no matter what situation(s) led you to numb yourself with food, drugs, sex, or your self-soothing mechanism of choice, you did the best you could with the information you had on a physical, mental, and emotional level. You dealt with your emotions in the best way that you knew how.

Hindsight is 20/20, and it's easy to get caught up in the “shoulda, coulda, woulda” spiral of shame when looking back on a situation. But when we're in a state of discomfort, we don't always have the capacity to think logically or rationally. Your brain and body respond to discomfort based on what feels like the safest option in the moment, and sometimes that means turning to habitual or addictive behaviors.

Forgive yourself because you did the best you could at the time, and move on knowing that you have the knowledge and tools to think differently next time.

Finally: time.

We have a tendency to look for the quick fix, but there's no six-hour healing elixir that can magically erase the pain and discomfort from old wounds. Healing takes time.

Give yourself time to fill your emotional tool-kit and understand that healing is a journey—one that lasts a lifetime.

Of course, practice makes the journey easier, but there is no perfection. There will be times when you fall back on old patterns and behaviors, when that happens reach into your emotional tool-kit and take what you need. You are equipped. You can do this.

Photo credit: © Brainsil | Man Doing Yoga On The Beach Photo

About Jennifer Sterling

Jennifer Sterling is an Emotional Eating Coach. She helps women stop eating their feelings and release the physical, mental and emotional weight that’s keeping them from feeling their absolute best. Download The Cravings Decoder Guide and uncover the hidden emotional meaning behind your food cravings.

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  • Useful. I draw the analogy between bad memories and fruit (bear with me). A bad memory is like a mouldy white orange in your fruit bowl … let it touch the other healthy oranges and they’ll go mouldy too. You’ll end up with no fresh oranges., no fresh future. Remove the mouldy orange as soon as you can. Never let it infect the good ones. Squeeze it for juice first. In other words, get what you can from it. Then Bin it. It’s no good to you now. This is the way to consider bad memories.

  • Valentina

    The timeliness of this post almost scares me as I was thinking just this morning how the emotions I’ve been working on recently are now manifesting as physical pain and I was wondering how to release them. Thank you so much for the wonderful advice!

  • Jennifer Sterling

    So glad you found it helpful Valentina!

  • Jennifer Sterling

    Interesting analogy Mike! I can definitely see how it relates – learn from the memory and try to move on. Thanks so much for sharing.

  • fragglerock

    Bessel van Der Kolk wrote an awesome book about the same stuff called “The Body Keeps the Score”

  • Jennifer Sterling

    It’s an amazing book. “Waking the Tiger” by Peter Levine is also a really great resource!

  • fragglerock

    I’ll have to check that one out

  • Jennifer Sterling

    Thanks so much for sharing! I’ll definitely have a look.

  • Shar Yale

    I am so happy I found this article right now. It is people like you, Miss Sterling, who make Tiny Buddha, what it is today. Thank you very much for giving me an insight of what I missed to see in my life every time I feel blue. Will put the wisdom you shared with us into use whenever I need to.

    Thank you very much. May the Lord bless you, Miss Sterling.

  • Jennifer Sterling

    Thank you so much Shar! I’m so glad you found the article helpful.
    Love and light to you.

  • Regina Cruz

    amazing article. thank you for your wisdom!

  • Regina Cruz

    just the first quote under the picture – speaks volumes to me! 🙂

  • Jennifer Sterling

    My pleasure Regina! So glad it resonated with you.

  • Shashank Prasad

    Wow! I know this article would be relevant to so many people in the world right now and that would include me. So you are serving humanity in a big way Miss Sterling and you could be proud of that. Thanks for sharing

  • Mehrin Mohsini

    this is really amazing. U make the world a better place, one person at a time.

  • Awesome article Jennifer. I checked out your site, too. FYI: The link in your bio needs to be updated for your freebie. 🙂

  • Jennifer Sterling

    Thanks so much Mehrin!

  • Jennifer Sterling

    Thanks so much for the heads up! We’re sorting it out now.

  • Jennifer Sterling

    Thanks so much for reading Shashank! I’m so glad you found it helpful.

  • Amazing steps – I can relate to fixing the sugar addiction was great – but did not offer core release of the underlying triggers. That was where the work lay – and forgiveness has been the answer for me. Forgiveness is everything for me now – it is about letting go and letting be as a way to letting me be free.

  • Nancy1114

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  • barack

    i was touched by this post, i was lock up in my room and wanted to commit suicide when i when to Google and find this article, i am really stress, but after finish reading this article i gain hope again, thanks. am just like killing my self. thanks

  • Jennie

    I just want to add that people with trauma can retraumatize themselves by doing some of the exercises mentioned in the article if they have not developed the proper resources first. Catharsis isn’t the right path for most traumatized people. A Somatic psychotherapist or Somatic Experiencing practitioner can be a great support for doing this sort of work.

  • Pie

    Please provide ANY evidence for this claim of yours:

    “Once the fight is over, both dogs will shake to calm their nervous systems and quiet the fight, flight, or freeze response. This enables them to move on without the physical memory of the situation.”

  • Jennifer Sterling

    You are absolutely correct Jennie. Thanks for mentioning this. I often recommend working with a Somatic psychotherapist or Trauma Specialist to clients of mine who have been severely traumatized.

  • One of the most productive new mindfulness-based therapy for healing trauma is called image reprocessing – where you work on changing the actual aspects of traumatic memories that create the associated emotional reactions. One simple example is changing the size of the memory image. By making it extremely small, you will decrease the intensity of the associated traumatic memory. Simple in principle and often VERY effective.

  • Phil

    I’ve had numbness in my solar plexus area for 3 years, which appeared after I got passed up in my local area by some thugs. Your little guide worked! 😀 Of course healing takes time, but after following the first step, and I shaked my body, my solar plexus vibrated quickly, and I feel slightly better now. 1 step at a time will sort it out I’ll guess. Thank you! 😀

  • bagscooler

    Have you tried tre? I’ve been going to classes and it has really helped me release. I think it’s called trauma release process. Dr Vercelli comes to mind and a book called waking the tiger

  • akt crat

    “healing is a journey—one that lasts a lifetime.” After reading this sentence I’m highly disappointed. Through out my childhood and adolescence I have under gone a lot of trauma, depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies without even realizing what was happening to me!! It has taken many years and a lot of research in the internet for me to understand what have i gone through and understand that I have faced a lot of childhood trauma. Now is the time that I understood in my adulthood that healing myself from the trauma is the solution. But after reading the above sentence I feel like beating my wall against the head. I feel like what is the use of living anymore if I have to invest a life time of my energy into this particular thing!! I have seen many people living life with ease without much trauma and progressing in life. But all I have to do is keep on repairing all the damages done to me through out my life!!

  • Lindsay Szymanski

    Booya.

  • Mara Lee

    Jennifer, thank you so much for this. I’ve just started to recognize that my emotional pain has been manifesting itself physically and I’m going to work through these feelings with the tool kit you have provided. thank you, thank you, thank you. so insightful.

  • sunnycroft

    HELPFUL advise. I have realised that YOU have to get out there, take a chance and momentarily the memories, especially during the day weaken & eventually you can occupy your mind with nice things, sights, people and activities. The WORST though is what the SUBCONSCIOUS brain won’t realease in the early days after you’ve left, divorced, walked away from the Pain. Often, after nearly 2 years, I still wake up in a sweat after a bad dream, sometimes Nightmare.