The Fear Memory Integration Hypothesis
Chronic distress is not pathological. It does NOT signify that “something is wrong with you”. Rather, it is a messenger that, when attended to, can lead you out of your distress.
Recurrent, seemingly irrational distress such as anxiety, chronic anger, painful shyness, etc. is caused by the sensory recollection of survival reactions. These reactions are sensorimotor artifacts of prior trauma, which relate to pain, discomfort, tension, and arousal. Thus, they involve the chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system.
Chronic distress indicates the existence of trauma-related information, which was never cortically processed. In other words, the conscious mind doesn’t know the information exists. Consciousness, here, refers only to high-road sensory information processing.
Presently , our mental health system treats chronic distress as a pathological symptom. The symptoms are medicated. This reduces the feeling of distress, without removing the stressor. This is how symptom treatment, exclusively, encourages chronic distress disorders. Because this "lost" information exists and is constantly being suppressed instead of integrated, we experience depression. Depression is global repression (Janov).
Chronic distress responses are state-dependent memories.
To say that our memories are “state-dependent” is to acknowledge that we remember more information if our physical or mental state is the same at the time of recall as it was during the time of encoding. This is particularly true of memories made during survival events.
Studies have shown that creating the same internal state that existed at the time of encoding such memories, is sufficient to serve as a retrieval cue. This effect is called context reinstatement.
Fear Memory Integration is an attempt at context reinstatement, done in safe, incremental stages, which the nervous system, itself, modulates.
NOTE: The ability to safely self-regulate access to our survival reactions is only true for people who are in control of their lives: i.e., can hold down a job, manage relationships, are not actively drug and alcohol dependent, are not institutionalized or requiring the support of social service organizations, etc. Most of us can safely engage in, and profit from fear memory integration..
In stead of medicating our distress signals, integration of remembered survival reactions should be encouraged. Talk-style therapy may get the process moving. We see emotional expression emerging in a session, along with some other indications that distress signals are becoming active. But, the sessions are very short (usually 45 minutes) and the therapist usually leads the client back into a discussion of “why do you think you are feeling this way”. Both the artificial time limit and the question “why” severely limits integration.
The practice of Sensorimotor Processing and Somatic Experiencing acknowledges the existence of emotional behaviors but each discourages the emotional component and forces exclusive attention on the physical movements in minute detail. Inherent in these practices is the belief that emotions will “hijack” the healing process. However, when we consider that the whole body is involved in trauma reaction, if we understand that life threatening acts can result in violent defensive reactions, and if the Imprint is understood as representing that whole body response, then we can see that much of the traumatic information will remain inaccessible to consciousness, using these expression-limiting practices. Primal-type practices are most effective, because only they allow for the full expression of the sensorimotor artifacts of the trauma. Resolution of chronic distress increases in direct proportion to the amount of trauma information that is activated and consciously processed.
So…what does context re-instatement look like? What is meant by “creating the same internal state” as the trauma? We can experience the answers to these questions, if we slow our thought processes down enough to become aware of what our body is signaling to us in the moment.
Body signaling is a constant process. Our lives and consciousness depends on it. The constant signaling, and our response to signaling, keeps us in synch with our environment. Even though we are unaware of their existence, many of these signals are accessible.
If we actively turn away from our rational, thinking mind, we may notice that a foot or leg is jumping. Or maybe it’s a tight feeling in our throat. Or a clenched stomach, butterflies, goose bumps, etc. These things may be bits and pieces of our traumatic sensorimotor artifacts becoming active. If so, then they represent the beginnings of the re-creation of the same internal state as was present in the original traumatic incident.
Recognizing this, we begin using the tools discussed previously, we start working with these reactions. That is, we stay with the experience, we enrich the experience with sounds, words, phrases, and movements that show themselves in the moment. Whatever shows up as we attend to and give a voice to our internal states, we KEEP attending to. Over the course of a session and or many sessions, we might experience more of the trauma constellation showing itself to us. As this happens, we are becomingly increasingly creative of the complete original trauma state. As we continue to attend to…and allow ourselves to endure the distress that accompanies these reactions… the lost information contained in the reactions becomes consciously processed and, thereby, cortically manageable.
“Pathological” signals can now get shut off. The cortex, having finally gotten the lost information, examines it, associates it with all other stored information, checks it against present reality, and passes it on to the cortical response area. The medial-prefrontal cortex (one such area), knowing that the present distress response does not map onto present reality, suppresses our initial, primitive response to that signal. All of this happens without us being aware that it is happening. This is what the conscious brain does…it orders and regulates information coming from the primitive, unconscious part of the brain. As trauma-related information management happens, the energy driving the neurotic act out diminishes.
Established connections are permanent, as is the relief that accompanies them. Insights spontaneously emerge and we achieve a cellular understanding. The understanding involves coming to know and, therefore acting as though, our traumatic reactions are a thing of the past. This cellular understanding can be objectively verified in vital sign measurement, MRI imaging, and stress testing…taken before and after information processing (connection).