Trauma. A short definition from the American Psychological Association describes trauma as an “emotional response to a terrible event.” The ambiguity of this definition lends insight into the widespread lack of understanding many of us have of trauma—how it impacts us emotionally, mentally, and physically—not to mention its profound implications upon many of our lives. Compound the question further and ask: how is trauma stored in the body? Today, I’m highlighting the importance of breaking down this very key part of our health. I’ll be sharing how trauma lives within our bodies long-term—and how we can begin to heal it.
Featured image by Claire Huntsberger.
Lauren Zielinski is a certified nurse-midwife with over 11 years of experience in women’s health and birth. She studied medicine at The University of Colorado-Denver with a focus on community health and birth center work.
Experiencing My Personal Trauma
I’ll start with a personal aside. I experienced a traumatic event in 2014 and found myself reeling from the newfound anxiety. I interpreted everything that took place around me as a perceived danger. At that point, I had no idea how absolutely devastating trauma can be in one’s life. Directly after the event, I used alcohol as a coping mechanism. I stayed busy and went out with friends to keep myself distracted. In short, I was avoiding dealing with the ways trauma was impacting my mental health.
But when I met my husband, I began to notice how not handling my trauma made our relationship more difficult. Being with him, and seeing how my unhealed trauma impacted us, I realized I needed to do something about my anxiety and fear. With the support of an amazing trauma therapist, I began to make sense of what had happened to my brain. I learned why I lived as a highly anxious and hyper-reactive person for so many years after the accident.
The Path To Healing
I’ve suffered from what I firmly believe is trauma living in my body for years. And to be clear, I’m still on the long journey to healing. I’ve learned a lot along the way and have also learned how important it is to approach life and everyone I meet with a trauma-informed lens.
Trauma Looks—And Feels—Different For Everyone
Many of us know that traumatic experiences in life can be scarring both mentally and emotionally. According to data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, roughly 90% of American adults have experienced a traumatic event at least once.
It’s less commonly understood, however, that our bodies can hold unprocessed and unintegrated trauma. This leads to painful physical symptoms and even long-term disease. What’s more, everyone who experiences trauma may respond differently. Not everyone who experiences a traumatic situation (think: car accident, sexual violence, natural disaster, etc.), experiences PTSD or is left “scarred” for life.
Two people could be in the same car accident and walk away with two very different experiences of their trauma (check out this video for more information on the idea). But with focused therapy, our bodies and brains can begin to process trauma and, in turn, build resilience.
The Science of Trauma
Our bodies and our brains are experts at protecting ourselves when we sense imminent danger. This fight or flight response is likely something you’ve heard of before. Essentially, our brains release stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine, and adrenaline in response to real or perceived danger. Our brains do this for several reasons, including to:
- Heighten our senses
- Increase our heart rate
- Slow digestion
All of this is done to increase our ability to move quickly. Part of this response is dependent on how our nervous system interacts with what is known as the HPA axis or hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. When someone is experiencing prolonged periods of stress, the HPA axis tries to sustain cortisol and other stress hormones. This gives your body a boost of energy, thinking that certain stress is something life-threatening or dangerous.
Your brain keeps stress hormones pumping to give you the energy to flee. Unfortunately for our bodies and brains nowadays, most stressful things in life (a crappy email from your boss, a car cutting you off, or a text from your ex) don’t necessitate this massive stress hormone dump. It’s definitely biological overkill—but it’s just how we tick.
How Our Brains Try to Keep Us Safe
When an individual’s brain has been impacted by a past traumatic experience, their HPA axis becomes hypersensitive and overreactive. This is our body’s attempt to protect us. While our brains are smart, a traumatized brain doesn’t understand how to differentiate between a real and perceived threat. As a result, they flood the body with stress hormones, elevating your senses to “protect you” at the slightest similar stimuli.
I’ll give an example. In 2014, just a few weeks after the terrible car accident I witnessed, I was living in LA sitting outside a coffee shop. Suddenly, a bicycle that pulled up to the shop struck a nail. The bike tire popped and a deafening noise rang through the air. Everyone sitting around me just glanced at the bike. But within seconds, I was on the ground underneath the coffee table, heart racing, wondering why I reacted that way.
I later learned in therapy that because of the trauma I had experienced, my brain and nervous system had become hypersensitive to seemingly innocuous stimuli. This idea is known as HPA dysfunction—and it doesn’t always apply to noises either. The psychological phenomenon applies to all kinds of trauma.
Trauma’s Mental and Physical Impact
Storing trauma in our bodies comes into play when the untethered release of stress hormones over and over again at higher than normal levels begins to impact our mental and physical health. Eventually, this causes damage to our bodies.
Some of the understood outcomes of unmanaged long-term HPA dysfunction are:
- Frequent illness (lowered immune system)
- Difficulty coping with stress
- Inexplicable fatigue
- Feeling easily overwhelmed
- Exaggerated stress response
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Menstrual irregularities (due to hormonal imbalance)
- Muscle weakness
- Cardiovascular disease (heart disease)
So how do we know where to begin and learn to heal from past traumas? Keep reading for tips to help you move forward.
4 Tips For Healing From Trauma
Seek Therapeutic Support
If it’s available to you, start therapy as soon as possible. I recommend and personally use Psychology Today to find therapists in my area who take my insurance. By working through a traumatic event with therapy, you’re helping your body and brain understand and process what’s being retrieved through your memory (whether that’s through flashbacks, body sensations, relieving the event, etc.)
Know this: It’s never too late to start therapy. It’s been found that two types of therapy, Cognitive Processing Therapy and Prolonged Exposure Therapy, may help treat PTSD symptoms in as little as 12 weeks. Many people also find they have great success with EMDR therapy as well.
Practice Stress Reduction and Calming Techniques
Mindfulness practices such as yoga, meditation, or breathwork all show promising ability to decrease anxiety and rewire negative thought patterns surrounding trauma. I love apps like Calm, Insight Timer, Headspace, or Breethe for guided meditation or breathwork. Research shows that 8-12 weeks of mindfulness practice has the ability to change our brains for the better.
Practice a Healthy Lifestyle
Avoiding consuming alcohol or caffeine in excess will help your brain begin to recalibrate, giving you the space and time to begin to process what has happened. When you’ve mastered getting out of unhealthy habits, begin thinking about eating well, exercising as much as possible, and sleeping at least 7 hours each night. It may sound like a lot when you’re feeling down or have a hard time just functioning, so don’t commit to all of these at once. Healthy habits take time to build—try adding just one of these healthy habits at a time!
Advocate for Yourself
It’s easy to think that something is wrong with you or that you’re being “over-dramatic” or “overly sensitive.” In reality, your brain IS oversensitive and it’s important to be understanding, kind, and patient with your experience. It can be helpful to educate your partner or close friends and family on the physiological effects of trauma. This can help them start to understand what you’re going through. I’ve found it gives people more understanding and patience with my intense anxiety around cars or feeling out of control. It also helps people help me when I need support.
For Further Reading
I can’t recommend this enough to begin to understand trauma and the ways it lives within our bodies.