Trauma has effects that reverberate through the body, impacting us mentally and physically. While we might know to look for mental and emotional changes, it’s also important to monitor physical cues following a traumatic experience. If you’re experiencing any of the effects discussed by the professionals in this article after a traumatic event, consider seeing a therapist of your own.
How trauma can affect the body physically
“Most of the physiological damage of trauma occurs due to the body being stuck in hyper and hypo-arousal—fight, flight, freeze or fawn mode,” explains Beverly Hills, CA clinical psychologist Deniz Ahmadinia, PsyD. “Chronic activation of the stress response leads to high levels of cortisol and adrenaline. These somatic changes have a profound impact on our health.”
Going forward, until healing work is done, the body struggles to differentiate between the past trauma and new situations, says New York psychotherapist Olivia Verhulst. “Physical symptoms can include increased heart rate, headaches, chronic pain and feeling on edge.” Dr. Ahmadinia says trauma can also result in “armoring or chronic muscle tightness, shallow or incomplete breathing, digestive disorders, sleep difficulties from being over-activated, weight gain and difficulty feeling relaxed and grounded in the body.”
The mental impact of trauma
The mind and body are intrinsically linked when it comes to trauma. Verhulst says that during a traumatic experience, the amygdala in the brain, which detects danger, becomes hyperactive. Meanwhile the rational part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, has decreased function. “After the event, it’s difficult for the body to return to baseline as it usually can after even semi-stressful events. For instance, after a pressure-filled interview, the brain reacts to new events as it did during the trauma because the amygdala is overgeneralizing threats,” she explains.
The psychological aftermath of trauma differs from person to person. Generally, “Complex trauma (exposure to multiple traumatic events often of an interpersonal nature) that occurs across a large frame of time results in problems including emotional regulation, negative core beliefs about the self and relationship issues,” says Verhulst. It also impacts our ability to trust, she adds. Events that are considered traumatic can also result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms of PTSD include hypervigilance, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, emotional distress and avoidance tendencies, says Verhulst. It’s worth noting that not all trauma leads to PTSD.
Dr. Ahmadinia says other mental impacts from trauma can include “re-experiencing the trauma through memories (emotional and somatic), flashbacks, nightmares, fear, anxiety, hypervigilance, emotional numbness, difficulty concentrating, anger, irritability, guilt, shame, hopelessness, panic attacks, self-destructive behaviors, feeling disconnected from others, loss of sense of self, social isolation and avoidance.”
“The first step in working through trauma is recognizing that what you experienced was traumatic for you,” says Dr. Ahmadinia. From there, you can access education, information, resources and professional help to support you. “When possible, working with a mental health professional who has specialized training in trauma is highly recommended to help determine the best approach and treatment plan for you.”
Experts might enlist evidence-based therapies. These could include Cognitive Processing Therapy (CBT), Prolonged Exposure (PE), and preliminary evidence for Eye Movement Desensitization Therapy (EMDR), says Dr. Ahmadinia. “The field is increasingly supporting more holistic, mind-body modalities to address the impact of trauma on the body,” she says. Dr. Ahmadinia points to somatic and mindfulness-based therapies, and non-western healing traditions, such as yoga, Qigong and tai chi.”