Have you ever had an experience when you can tell that the emotional reaction you are having is bigger than it needs to be in relation to what’s actually happening in the present moment?
You feel a sudden burst of strong emotion like anger or fear or bewilderment… Your body is having strong sensations like a racing heart or you feel like all the blood drains out of your limbs… you have a strong impulse to get away or lash out or go to sleep… And all that happened is your boss told you they wanted to talk to you… Or you just drove by your ex’s house… or maybe you are not really sure what happened but the feeling is strong and sudden.
Many people call this being ‘triggered”. But what exactly is going on when this happens?
What is going on in these moments, is that you are having an implicit memory.
Let me explain…
An implicit memory is a body memory. It’s not the kind of memory where you remember what happened in the past and you know you are remembering something from the past.
Implicit memory is when the feelings and emotions from an past experience arise and you are feeling it all NOW. It doesn’t feel like a memory, it’s is just what you feel right now in reaction to what is happening right now and the feeling is strong and all consuming…
And while the feeling probably has some relationship to what’s going on presently, it is primarily a body-based memory from some un-integrated trauma from the past.
We are encoding implicit memory all the time below the level of our awareness. Most of our experiences are being processed and integrated into our overall brain throughout each day. But when we have an experience that is traumatic, meaning it can’t be processed at the time because we are too scared or hurt or confused and we don’t have anyone to support us… then our brains do an amazing thing to protect us…
Since we can’t live day after day with such a strong feeling of fear or rage or confusion… our brains isolate the implicit feeling, including the body sensations and impulses, emotional state, and thoughts into a single neural net and tuck it away inside, separate it from the rest of our brain. This way we can continue to function okay and not be swamped by this overwhelming feeling all the time.
And our system holds this implicit memory inside waiting for an opportunity, when conditions are right, to integrate it, so we can be more whole again.
In the meantime, this isolated neural net affects our lives. Anything that reminds us of this experience, a certain look on someone’s face, a certain smell, a tone of voice, it could be any number of things… and this neural net opens and we are ‘triggered’.
The old feeling arises and we are totally in it, feeling exactly the same fear or anger or confusion we had way back when the original trauma happened. We are having the same body sensations and impulses to get away or lash out or shut down that we had then. The same kinds of racing thoughts or the way our mind goes blank, just like it did it did back then.
This implicit memory has been locked away like a time capsule and when it opens it’s suddenly all there again as if no time has passed at all.
This is really awful when it happens, and a lot of our internal energy has to go towards trying to keep this kind of implicit memory from opening up. We may have to stay away from certain kinds of experiences, people, and places because those kind of things may open it all up again and we can’t handle it…
When these memories arise, they can stop us in our tracks, or hurt our relationships, or lead us into having the same kind of negative experience again and again. It’s not enough to try to keep these implicit feelings from opening up. To heal, we need to integrate the original experience so it isn’t so isolated anymore inside. And this integration can happen even if we aren’t sure exactly what the original trauma was about… just by working with the implicit feeling itself.
I want to pause for a moment and acknowledge that just reading about this may have stirred up some implicit memories in you. If so, I want to offer a practice of gentleness.
I invite you to pause and turn your attention inward. Place one hand on your heart and one hand on your belly. And breathe. Together, let’s bring some gentleness to your body and to whatever you are experiencing right now. Let’s hold this feeling with care.
Also, here is a link to an audio version of the Pause and Feel practice. Please feel free to use it and share it with friends and family.