By Wesley Gallagher
The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster.” And while trauma is absolutely an emotional response, it is also inherently and powerfully physical.
In fact, the physical response is often the very first response we have to trauma. Before our minds even know what is happening, our bodies instinctually react to threatening events. And while this can be a good and helpful response, there are times when our bodies hang on to the response for days, months, or even years.
Before our minds even know what is happening, our bodies instinctually react to threatening events.
What is the Body’s Natural Reaction to Trauma?
Our bodies are wired to respond to traumatic experiences. Most of the time, the body’s reactions to trauma are beneficial, and can even save our lives. You’ve probably heard of the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. When we are faced with a perceived threat, our bodies automatically change hormonally and physiologically in order to protect us.
In fight or flight, your heart rate increases and the hormones, adrenaline, and cortisol spike so you can act quickly and decisively. In freeze mode, your body remains totally still in preparation for action or in order to hide. Usually these responses subside within minutes of perceived danger.
Unfortunately, sometimes our bodies aren’t able to recover as quickly from these responses. Especially when we experience ongoing trauma or emotional trauma, the body may remain in a state of constant vigilance (fight/flight), or shut down (freeze), causing a host of physical symptoms.
Holding Trauma in the Body and Its Long-Term Effects
When our body is unable to process or recover from trauma, it holds onto these instinctual responses, leaving a physical imprint of the trauma that fundamentally alters the way our bodies react to stress and other external stimuli. Meanwhile, the brain works in overdrive to obscure the memories of trauma, pushing it from our conscious memory into the unconscious. While this is a protective measure that can help us carry on after trauma, long-term it can hinder healing by keeping us from fully processing the trauma.
Meadows Senior Fellow Dr. Bessel van der Kolk writes in his book, The Body Keeps the Score: “Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.”
This vicious cycle continues until trauma is unearthed and processed, by the body as well as the brain.
When to Get Help for Trauma
Trauma has gone mainstream recently with numerous big names speaking up about their traumatic experiences. Celebrities have begun diving into it head-on, like rapper Megan Thee Stallion with her newest album, Traumazine. According to Yahoo, she defines the word “traumazine” as the “chemical released in the brain when it is forced to deal with painful emotions caused by traumatic events and experiences.” The album deals explicitly with the trauma she has endured over the last several years.
While this normalizing of trauma is a big step forward in the fight for mental health awareness, when terms reach mainstream status, they can also start to be misused. Were you traumatized when you missed your flight? No, most likely not. Do you have PTSD from a stressful week at work? Almost certainly no.
So how can you know if your body is telling you that you are holding on to trauma? Here are some symptoms to look out for :
- Hyperarousal (overactive response to triggers) or hypervigilance (always on edge)
- Hypoarousal (underactive response to triggers)
- Sleep disturbances
- Easily startled
- Gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, neurological, musculoskeletal, respiratory, and dermatological disorders
- Substance use disorders
- Anxiety or depression
The best way to know whether you’re dealing with the effects of trauma is to talk to a professional therapist.
This list is not exhaustive, and in fact a wide range of physical symptoms can come from holding trauma in the body. The best way to know whether you’re dealing with the effects of trauma is to talk to a professional therapist.
The Meadows Knows Trauma
Unearthing and addressing trauma is at the heart of everything we do at The Meadows. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness, addiction, or other emotional or physical effects of trauma, we’re here to help. Contact us today to find out how we can help you begin your journey to healing.