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EFT and Memory: The Role of the Limbic System in Trauma Storage

Dear EFT Community,

In this article, EFT trainer and chiropractor Craig Weiner, DC, writes about the mechanisms of memory, particularly the role of the amygdala and the hippocampus (components of the limbic system) in the storage of trauma, and how this relates to and affects EFT practice. 

-EFT Universe

By Craig Weiner, DC

Here is the obvious. If you use EFT yourself or with others, you are using the process of memory.  If you are seriously doing EFT with others, if you have not yet, then you will run into trauma.  Even if you are working on knee pain or an allergy to ice cream.

It is bound to show up, and you may not realize it is there if you consider only the person’s presenting complaint. So the more you understand about how memory works, especially traumatic memories, the more effective you will be.

Anyone using EFT summons the ability of a person to remember events from the past. We often consider memory, especially our own, to be a bunch of facts from the past, recorded as if a documentary filmmaker in our brains accurately recorded just what happened. Ha! Tapping sessions nearly always recall a past event that involved stress, negative emotions, suffering, or even a traumatic response.

Sometimes our clients remember very little about a traumatic event; other times they recall events in vivid detail. It is also common, for those practitioners who have learned to safely and slowly work with trauma, that “trauma capsules” (you can listen to my interview with Robert Scaer, MD at efttappingtraining.com), when opened, reveal a great deal of sensory information and memories that had been submerged or seemingly forgotten.

Our work as practitioners often involves working hand in hand with individuals, time-traveling to the past, and it behooves us to understand a bit more about how the brain integrates, processes, stores, and recalls information, especially with regard to trauma.

That being said, I thought I would summarize some of the most current neuroscientific understandings in a post that could help anyone understand it. Knowing that it has taken me several times of hearing the explanation to fully grasp and remember it, I thought I might offer it in a simple-to-digest form.

There are many wonderful authors and leading-edge thinkers in the fields of neuroscience, trauma work, memory, somatic therapies, and more who offer the explanations better than I. The seminal work of brilliant ones such as Bessel van der Kolk, Robert Scaer, Allan Schore, Stephan Porges, and Dan Siegel are continual sources of information and inspiration to me.

The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment

Recently, I found myself immersed in Babette Rothschild’s book The Body Remembers, which offered an explanation and approach to working with trauma in such a way that I was inspired to put it into my own frame of reference and offer it up to my readers.

To understand memory, especially with regard to traumatic memories, it is helpful to understand a few important parts of the brain, notably the limbic system.

This system has three main players: the hypothalamus, the hippocampus, and the amygdala.

The hypothalamus is the home of our survival instincts and regulates the autonomic (what I call the automatic) nervous system, controlling our responses and reactions to stress (i.e., the fight, flight, or freeze response), among many other tasks such as regulating temperature and the need to eat and drink.

The hippocampus and amygdala are key players in the chain of events that take an experience from the present moment to data stored in the brain’s “hard drive,” the neocortex. The neocortex acts as the CEO of our lives, with ultimate executive control (as long as it is working properly and not offline because of stress).

I would wager that most of you have heard of these parts, and maybe once knew what they did but may have forgotten. That’s okay. While I may oversimplify some of this neuroscience, it is done this way in the hope of setting a foundation you can build upon over time and repetition.

Understanding this anatomy can go a long way in helping both the EFT practitioner and client to understand why they remember some things clearly and can’t for dear life remember other things.

I think of the amygdala as a satellite dish that is never turned off and receives emotional and sensory information that it then processes and passes along to get stored in the cortex. I think of my amygdala as my security cameras, which act as an early warning system in the middle of my head, working to keep me safe from harm.

When I was young, I was a competitive tennis player and my dad was my coach. He was often torn, as he knew I would get very anxious and play worse when he was watching me. He would hide in his car or behind trees so he could watch me play, attempting to not have me aware of his presence. Bad strategy. First, he would never have made a successful surveillance officer. Second, even if I could not detect his presence, I was constantly scanning the perimeter for his covert appearance.

I can still recall that sense of hyper-vigilance and overactive amygdala, with its associated tightness in my solar plexus.

The amygdala’s purpose is to take in sensory information from the environment, most especially regarding emotionally charged experiences, and to assist in its storage to come in handy at a future date. It offers immediate warnings to know whether to batten down the hatches (emotionally and physically), to send immediate messages of engagement instructions as to whether to find safety (by attacking or fleeing), or to continue forward without worry.

This is also where it works in tandem with other parts of the brain, recalling similar past scenarios to see if they offer useful information to help better decide what to recommend in this present moment. (Is this starting to make sense as to why when we are tapping on an event and shifting aspects start appearing that throw us or our clients into related but totally other events that resemble the one we were just working on?) 

Apparently, this structure is of critical significance for our survival because from day one, we are born with our amygdala already fully mature. (Did you know that? I didn’t!) So when you walk into a room of new people, you may get a sense, to the extent you can, that your amygdala is online attuning your eyes, ears, and all your other sense organs to determine if this room is safe so you can relax, engage, and learn without being on high alert.

Of course a past history of trauma will affect that scenario so that the degree of alertness and sensitivity toward danger is affected. (This is why current research is finding such a high degree of returning veterans who develop PTSD, having had prior childhood experiences of traumatic experiences. Robert Scaer refers to these earlier traumatic events prior to PTSD as “kindling.”)

The amygdala’s key partner is the hippocampus. (While elephants are known as the “memory keepers of the pachyderms,” known to never forget, perhaps the “hippos” are equally facile at remembering. If not, it’s at least good memory jogger to recall what the hippocampus does!). It acts like an “experience date-stamper” recording what, where, when, etc.

It processes the data of our experiences, date stamps it, and creates a time line that gives events a context, with a sense of time and place for when we recall them at a later date. Recently, I learned that, unlike the amygdala, the hippocampus does not mature until we are 2 to 3 years old.

When as parents we watch an infant observing and responding emotionally to our facial expressions of googley or sad face, apparently the necessity of remembering the order of such observations is not critical. The date stamping is apparently not yet required for future access. Much speculation has been made that this helps to explain why memories before the age of 3 are much less accessible and may have a very different and more vague quality to them, having no context or date associated with them.

So how does this relate to EFT and especially to trauma? Good question.

Guess what happens during stressful experiences that involve rapidly increasing stress, a sense of helplessness, an inability to escape a situation that feels threatening or overwhelming? (These are the characteristics of a traumatic experience.) Well, the amygdala goes into overdrive, pulling in gigabytes of both external environmental information and internal physical-response information that it can process each millisecond.

Stress hormones are secreted (adrenaline and noradrenaline are like the short-term “sprinters” of stress, while cortisol has the ability to be a long-distance marathon runner, like an energizer bunny that can keep going and going and going). These hormones do many, many things in the body (from sending blood flow and oxygen to muscles, increasing heart rate and respiration, reducing pain), but most important here, they can effectively put a kabosh on the hippocampus!

So during traumatic events, the amygdala is processing all kinds of important information received by our sense organs to be stored that may not be accurately date stamped.

Some theorize that this may explain why people who suffer from PTSD have difficulty when they are emotionally flooded by a trigger associated with the offending trauma (as in flashbacks) and are unable to accurately place themselves in the present moment versus feeling like they are right back in the original trauma.

Other research has studied the brains of people diagnosed with PTSD and found them to have smaller hippocampi. The enduring question about this finding is whether those who have PTSD and thus live with elated stress hormones have their volume reduced by these stress chemicals or perhaps theirs were of smaller size from the outset, which made them more vulnerable to developing posttraumatic stress disorder.

The big picture is that a reduced size or functioning of the hippocampus may very well reduce the ability to cope with life’s stressful events.

How does this apply to tapping?

1. When tapping, you can now better understand the supposedly “random” shifting aspects consisting of distantly related memories that just drop in during a tapping round. Remember, that neurons that fire together, wire together!

2. You can now better understand why when someone can become flooded with emotion when recalling a past trauma, an important part of their brain (hippocampus) is working less than optimally, and they can lose track of whether they are in the present or past. This is why it is important for clients to keep their eyes open and work slowly and gently, and for practitioners to help clients stay in the present moment, even purposely help them with dissociative techniques like Matrix Reimprinting to prevent them from becoming retraumatized.

3. You can use this understanding to help your clients feel more at ease when they struggle with trying to remember elements of their past and complain that they cannot remember anything, especially when they have a large number of Adverse Childhood Experiences.

I hope this article has been helpful and I look forward to writing more on similar topics.