Traumatic Memory and How to Heal it

Created by
Karen Gray CH, RN

It's Self Care Awareness Month!

September is Self–Care Awareness Month. This is a great time to remember that taking care of ourselves, first and foremost, is essential. We all tend to put others needs before our own and it is crucial to remember that we can’t fill up someone else’s cup when our own is empty. There are a lot of ways to look at self care. Getting a massage or taking a walk are great examples of taking time to look after our well-being. This month our articles will focus on ways that you can incorporate self-care into your every day like easily and effortlessly.

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Traumatic Memory and How to Heal it

Have you ever been told when you’re stressed to stop worrying and just relax? That it’s all in your head? It would be nice if it were that easy, and with the right tools, it can be.

Let’s start with the example of exposure to a stressful event. One in which you felt helpless, hopeless, and lacked control. In this case your autonomic nervous system (ANS) is kicked into action. This is the part of the nervous system that is responsible for controlling subconscious actions like breathing. To be more specific, it is the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system that kicked in while you were under that strain. This is your “Fight or Flight” response.

To activate this fight or flight response, stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released from your adrenal glands. They help our body to suddenly flee from danger. So you have all these chemicals and hormones rushing through your body, and if you don’t burn them off, they have nowhere to go.

According to Peter A. Levine, trauma expert in the field of psychotherapy, trauma occurs when this biological process is overwhelmed and a person is unable to burn off those chemicals and physically process the stressful event. Likewise, it is possible to avoid a traumatic response by discharging the energy generated. For example, shaking, crying, and screaming can allow the individual to physically process the stress. However, if the stress chemicals are not processed, they remain in the tissues of the body, creating a sort of “Ready State.”

Imagine for a minute that all of a sudden, a tiger bursts through the door of the room you are sitting in. Instantly, before you consciously register what is happening, your subconscious mind is already responding. A large amount of stress hormones are released. Blood rushes to extremities, pupils dilate, muscle tone increases presenting as tension, breathing rate increases, the heartbeats faster, and sweating occurs. You are ready to fight that animal, or run for your life.

Now, imagine that the tiger never leaves. Over time, you sort of get used to it being there. You don’t run, or scream, or fight the animal off, but your body remains tense and ready. You maintain a level of these stress hormones and chemicals in your body so that you can take action if that tiger decides to get up. This is Chronic Stress.

Since your subconscious mind does not have eyes, and it relies on feelings to guide you, it cannot tell the difference between a tiger and a bad day at work, traffic, or money troubles. When you are in this “Ready State” you react the same way to all the stressors. The nervous system responds as if even these small incidents are life threatening.

This biological response is clearly beyond your ability to rationally control. You can’t think your way out of it with your conscious mind. Chronic stress eventually leads to dissociation, removing your feelings from situations. Your mind and body are using a lot of energy and focus to maintain this stressed state as a way of protecting you and keeping you safe. But this means that there is very little energy or focus left over to process other emotions. You become numb to emotional triggers, both good and bad, in an effort to protect yourself.

Chronic stress can also create immobility, making you feel stuck in place and unable to change. The subconscious, the most primitive part of the brain, governs emotional experience and biological response. When the subconscious activates the fight or flight response, it overrides the more developed parts of the brain that are responsible for logic and rational thinking. It is not possible to be in the primitive state of fight or flight and also to think rationally and critically.

Unprocessed stress becomes traumatic memory, and those traumatic memories are used by your subconscious mind to influence your behaviors in the future. A present day trigger can cause the stored memory to resurface. Learning why your body responds the way it does leads to awareness and empowerment. It moves us out of being isolated, fearful, victims. Releasing those traumatic memories allows us to care for our bodies, break out of limiting patterns and beliefs, process through emotions, and move forward.

When we comprehend the physiologic process that is trying to keep us safe, from an old memory or trauma, we can replace inner judgement with kindness. Self-love and forgiveness becomes possible. Those responses may not be serving us in the present but in the past they did. In fact, this same response helped us survive.

The Role of Hypnosis

There are a number of ways that hypnosis can help you to reprogram those automatic responses. In hypnosis, we are working directly with the subconscious mind, where those memories and programs are stored. Using advanced techniques, a qualified hypnotist can guide you to change your response to past events, and release the negative emotions associated with those past events.

The result is a down-regulation of that stress response, the physical processing and release of those stress chemicals, and a new way of responding to events that used to be stressful. Because you aren’t focusing so much energy on maintaining chronic stress, you begin to feel and enjoy life again. Hypnosis creates these changes so easily and effectively because it is not forcing your mind to respond to rational conscious thought, but instead it is allowing you to work within your own subconscious mind to find a better way of protecting you.

Here are some tools to deactivate the sympathetic stress response and activate the opposing parasympathetic response, called the “rest and digest” mechanism. The goal is to feel safe. To regulate breathing, slow the heartbeat, and circulate blood back to the vital organs.

Abdominal Breathing

Place your hand over your abdomen and push your stomach muscles out. You probably noticed that you inhaled. Good. Now, do it again. Push those stomach muscles out, but this time continue the inhale, filling your lungs as much as you can. Hold the breath for just a moment, then exhale slowly.

Do that a couple more times, and notice how you feel. Calmer? Maybe smiling? Heart rate slowed down? Clearer?

There is Science going on here, besides just taking a moment to pause and focus on nothing but your breathing. That action all by itself is good for you, and keeps you from reacting to your environment in unhealthy ways. But there is even more to it than that.

When you push your stomach muscles out, your diaphragm drops down, causing your lungs to open up at the bases. The diaphragm is the  muscle that separates your chest and your abdomen.

By allowing your lungs to open up at the bases, you are getting fresh air down to the tiny air sacs that transfer oxygen to your bloodstream. There are many more of these alveoli at the bases of your lungs than up higher, so more oxygen is getting into your blood.

More oxygen in your blood means more oxygen going to your brain. And more oxygen in your brain allows you to think clearer. The rest of your body is getting this oxygen rush too, and the result is an energized feeling or a feeling of increased wellness.

Something else happens when you push your abdominal muscles out and lower your diaphragm. This physical activity stimulates your Vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the controller of your parasympathetic nervous system, or your “rest and digest” response.

Stimulating the vagus nerve by taking these deep abdominal breaths can reduce stress, anxiety, anger, and inflammation by releasing some key chemicals in your brain:

Serotonin - elevates your mood

Melatonin - calms the mind (and promotes sleep)

Dopamine - relieves pain and lowers cortisol levels

This combination of feel-good chemicals, oxygen-rich blood, and the brief pause to focus on your breathing is a simple and profoundly powerful way to ease stress anytime, anywhere.

Square Breathing

1. Sit comfortably in a chair. Straighten your back and lift your chin so that you are facing straight ahead.

2. Close your eyes or focus on a single spot across from you.

3. Using the method for abdominal breathing, count to four as you inhale. Concentrate on your belly and notice how it moves when you inhale deeply.

4. Hold your breath for four seconds. You are not trying to deprive your body of oxygen, but allow a few seconds for the air to fill your lungs.

5. Open your mouth slightly and slowly exhale for four seconds.

6. Hold your breath for another four seconds.

7. Repeat the exercise four times.


1. Begin with the Square Breathing steps above. Complete all four sets.

2. Keeping your eyes closed or focused on a single spot, let your mind wander. Try imagining a breeze blowing through your mind that carries all the thoughts away as soon as you think them. Or maybe a gentle stream that does the same thing.

3. Remember that this exercise isn’t about ‘thinking.’ This is about letting the mind wander without dwelling on any thoughts. Think of the process as rinsing your mind clear.

4. Don’t get frustrated! This is a new thing for you, and it takes a little practice. Keep going. You’re doing great!

5. Practice this for at least 10 minutes anytime you feel overwhelmed with thoughts.

These powerful practices change our physiology and affect our mood. The next time someone suggests it’s all in your head, you will have a different response. This knowledge empowers us to heal past wounds. Through acknowledging the power trauma plays in your life and understanding the mechanisms by which healing occurs, you can create a more embodied, joyful life.∎

Karen Gray is a Certified Hypnotist, a Registered Nurse, and the Director of Green Mountain Hypnosis. For more information on how you can use hypnosis to change your life, you can visit, contact Karen at, or call (802) 566-0464.


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