How does trauma affect the body?

Danielle Louis, MHC-LP December 17, 2022

“Knowledge is the antidote to fear” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

It is not uncommon for the word “trauma” to activate feelings of discomfort or concern when you hear it, whether as a result of knowing all too well what it feels like to be living with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), you’re going through a “rule out*” phase of PTSD or you’re feeling ready to explore whether certain experiences in your life have impacted your mind and body with traumatic imprinting. In this article, we are going to explore some of the most commonly feared aspects of trauma – the effects on the physical body. Oftentimes, the best place to start is by acknowledging your fears and leaning into obtaining a greater understanding of your diagnosis to alleviate some of the vicious unknowns. 

Within knowledge, the unknowns become minimal, and at some point the minimal becomes doable. Having more information about trauma may not take away your symptoms, but it can assist you in taking some power away from the symptoms. 

Please remember to be kind to yourself and honor any emotions or reactions that come up when reading. Although some of these conditions can be severe and certainly sound alarming, please note that just because you have experienced trauma, it does not mean you will experience these physical conditions. If you ever have concerns about your physical wellbeing, please refer to a medical provider to assist you with more information and care. Lastly, remember that many of these effects on the body can be managed and supported with therapeutic care and coping skills. None of this is your fault, and we are here to support you in the healing of your mind-body connection and the neural pathways associated with PTSD.

“...trauma is something that also happens in the body. We become scared, stiff or, alternatively, we collapse, overwhelmed and defeated with hopeless dread. Either way, trauma defeats life.” 

- Peter Levine

Why does trauma affect the body?

The primary and most commonly known aspect of trauma is the fight or flight response, which stems from activation of your autonomic and parasympathetic nervous systems in reaction to a perceived or active threat. The thing about trauma is that even though the initial exposure may be five years in the past, your brain and body often feels it is occurring again after a sight/smell/sound experienced right now, in this moment, triggers your brain to tell your body to protect itself. Every time your body goes into this fight/flight mode, it goes through a litany of changes: increased heart rate, shunting of the stomach, auditory changes, dilation of the pupils, increased blood pressure. This results in temperature, glucose and hormonal changes in the body (to name a few). Though the cycle of fight/flight lasts only approximately twenty minutes, the time it takes the body to return to full homeostasis is longer, and by then, your body has been both over and under activated during this time, which has consequently led to an introduction of stress hormones into the bloodstream. 

The more this happens to your body, say, with PTSD and frequent moments of retraumatization, the more this is straining your internal systems – specifically the immune, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal systems. This disruption is currently being researched further in a newer field called psychoneuroimmunology due to continued findings between both PTSD and non-diagnosed PTSD trauma leading to poor health outcomes. These outcomes can include hypertension, hyperlipidemia and coronary artery disease, reproductive complications, and irritable bowel syndrome (D’Andrea et al., 2013). 

Smaller, less acutely dangerous but surely uncomfortable, things you may notice in your body with trauma is muscle tension, grinding of your teeth at night, headaches and fatigue.  Additional work by Dr. Gabor Maté has also brought about a focus on the stress-disease connection and how deeply impacted a body under traumatic stress can be to the susceptibility of numerous diseases, and is striving to bring awareness to the methods of reducing these risks and better understanding the way human emotions can affect the body. 

“Trauma sufferers, in their healing journeys, learn to dissolve their rigid defenses. In this surrender they move from frozen fixity to gently thawing and, finally, free flow.” 

- Peter Levine

How to minimize trauma in the body

With all of the slightly scary medical talk above, perhaps it is time to talk about tangible ways to reduce trauma and stress in your body, and how to best prepare for times of hypervigilance. Research and professionals alike unite on a unanimous and simplistic way of approaching this, and it begins by learning how to self-soothe. 

Self-soothing, a skill usually learned in infancy, can be refreshed with a few simple steps that allow you to notice your sensations and become in-tune with them, often referred to as a “top-down, bottom-up” method of reconnection (LaPera, 2021). 

  1. Learn your needs

What is your body feeling? Are your hands shaking; do you need to calm down? Are you feeling like you are zoning out (disassociating); do you need to ground yourself with something tactile? Are you going somewhere where there will be loud noises; do you need to bring headphones?  

  1. Care for those needs

Find grounding skills that work for you! Create a Trauma Tool Kit to have at the ready and pack it full of the grounding items that connect you to calmness. Ideally these are quickly accessible (you can literally and physically bring them with you if needed)! Some ideas include: essential oils (lavender, chamomile, oregano), gum, stress ball, fidget spinner, a grounding stone and a first-aid style ice pack that can be activated when needed. And of course, breathing exercises can go with you anywhere and have scientific backing to recreate damaged neural pathways after trauma, as does yoga! Lastly, laugh and have fun. If you have a trusted support group, playing games, singing and releasing stress within your body – even for brief periods of time – can help activate feel-good hormones. If you don’t have those people in your life, please consider finding a support group in your area.

Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies. Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard … In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.” 

- Bessel van der Kolk

As this article comes to a close, the realization of trauma is this: it has its own timeline and it has its own goals, and at times they will feel drastically different than the ones you crave for yourself, but that does not mean you have failed. You are doing everything you can to survive and thrive at this very moment and that is enough. I challenge you to feel proud of reading this today, gaining a little more insight into the inner workings of trauma in your body, and allowing yourself to grow stronger each day. It is my sincere hope that with this article you recognize that trauma is not destined to define you, and that clinicians, researchers and providers are in your corner– but it is you who is the most courageous of all. 

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