The Complicated Impact of Emotional Trauma on the Physical Body

“After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system. The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their life. These attempts to maintain control over unbearable physiological reactions can result in a whole range of physical symptoms including fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and other autoimmune diseases.”  –– Bessel Van Der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score.

Most of us will experience some form of trauma in our lifetime. Whether it’s an obvious form of trauma, such as fighting in a war, or more subtle life situations, like coping with a chronic illness or the death of a loved one or losing a job, no one is ever guaranteed a trauma-free life. 

Trauma is a person’s emotional response to a distressing experience. It isn’t necessarily about the event itself, but rather our internal, emotional response to the event which then drives a physiological response. Unlike ordinary hardships, traumatic events tend to be sudden and unpredictable, involve a serious threat to life and feel beyond a person’s control. Most importantly, events are traumatic because they undermine a person’s sense of safety in the world, whether that’s physical safety or emotional safety. 

There are generally two types of traumatic experiences, which are referred to as “Big T” and “Little T.” Big T is what you commonly think of when you hear of trauma. It’s generally an acute, singular traumatic event rather than an ongoing series of events: 

  • Experiencing or witnessing violence
  • Life-threatening events
  • Living through a natural disaster

“Little T” traumas may not necessarily be life-threatening or physically violent events, but they are often a series of ongoing, emotionally distressing situations–and in fact can actually cause more emotional harm than “Big T” Trauma if there’s chronic exposure. “Little T” events can include: 

  • Emotional abuse
  • Neglect
  • Experiencing or witnessing chronic illness or pain 
  • Bullying
  • Divorce
  • Ongoing financial concerns

Science is finding that trauma doesn’t just impact our daily lives: It has real biochemical effects on the body due to the way it rewires the brain and nervous system. When the brain goes into fight or flight mode or is stuck in survival mode, it leads to physical changes and life altering physical symptoms.

Distressing events activate the amygdala, part of the brain’s limbic system that’s responsible for activating your fight or flight response. When a threat is detected by the amygdala, it responds by sending out an alarm to multiple body systems to prepare for defense. The sympathetic nervous system jumps into action, stimulating the release of adrenaline and stress hormones that prepare the body for a fight-flight-or-freeze response. Your body responds with a variety of symptoms such as quickened heart rate, shallow and fast breathing, tightened muscles, dilated pupils, and blood flow redirected away from the digestive system. It is preparing to keep you alive at all costs.

Trauma, especially early trauma, if not emotionally released, keeps the brain and nervous system in a heightened and hypervigilant fight-or-flight state, leaving the body to continually defend itself against a threat that belongs only to the past. For example, if you were abused as a child, as an adult you may still experience fear, anxiety, and distress when people yell or come too close to you. Even though you intellectually know you’re safe, your body can be flooded with anxiety and stress plus accompanying symptoms (like heart palpitations and shallow, rapid breathing), displaying your body’s physiological, learned response to trauma.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are traumatic experiences occurring before the age of 18, and can have dire effects on that individual’s lifetime wellbeing. According to Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, “Childhood trauma increases the risk for seven out of ten of the leading causes of death in the United States. In high doses, it affects brain development, the immune system, hormonal systems, and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed. Folks who are exposed in very high doses have triple the lifetime risk of heart disease and lung cancer and a 20-year difference in life expectancy.”

Distressing events and our emotional response to them get stored in our subconscious mind. The subconscious mind, also known as the body-mind, is the control center for our life choices and our body. It communicates with every cell of the body at all times and directly affects our health. Unfortunately, if memories of trauma are not processed and reintegrated into our lives, they may remain locked in the confines of the body and express themselves as symptoms and even physical illnesses. 

When the body is in a constant state of fight or flight, elevated stress hormones are continually released resulting in neurotransmitter and hormonal imbalances, inflammation, cardiovascular concerns, and even a weaker immune system, leaving one at an increased risk for gut and viral infections as well as autoimmune conditions.

Growing up with ACEs or even experiencing trauma as an adult can be life altering, but with the growing scientific research around trauma support, also creates growing numbers of therapeutic intervention options. If you’re interested in understanding if you or your loved one has had exposure to ACEs, this assessment can help give guidance as to your potential toxic stress load and its potential role in your physiological response.

There are numerous therapeutic interventions for trauma including professional therapy services, EMDR, hypnosis, DNRS, somatic therapy, breathwork, Trauma Release Exercises (TRE), and Heart Variability monitoring. Since trauma is an emotional response that gets stored within the body, combining emotional/mental healing while working with the body to release stored emotions is imperative. The goal is to recalibrate your alarm system – to make your subconscious mind and your body feel safe. Have hope that feeling better and overcoming past trauma is possible! 

Here at FWT, while we do not treat trauma, we are informed about it. This means that we screen for trauma at every client intake, and are mindful of how past and present trauma may be influencing your current symptoms and struggles. It is not uncommon for us to discuss with you supporting the nervous system and sometimes even referring you to a licensed mental health professional well-versed in trauma treatment to support your nutrition and health coaching work.

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