Trauma rewires our brains. It turns on our fight/flight/freeze response. Our brains often struggle to recover from this. The human brain is still primal. We live in a world with modern threats and trauma, but our brain thinks we’re outrunning a saber tooth. Because most of the traumatic experiences we will have do not result in us physically running away, it’s more difficult for our brain to work through fearful and traumatic moments.
How Trauma Impacts Our Bodies
Researchers are learning more about how trauma impacts our brains and bodies. They’re also learning how we can overcome these responses and heal. We now know our bodies manifest trauma in a variety of ways, some of which are surprising. This article focuses on different ways our bodies may try to cope. If you find yourself resonating with a lot of these, reaching out to a counselor would be a great first step.
Pain is one of the most common ways our bodies send us messages. While we usually associate pain with some physical cause, there can certainly be a mental or emotional cause to our pain. Folks who have had traumatic experiences often report an increase in pain or developing chronic pain. The pain can appear as joint pain, overly sore muscles, unusual soreness and pain in the mornings, headaches, and more. Chronic headaches and migraines can also be triggered by excess stress or trauma.
Every area of the body can be impacted, even our eyes. Vision problems such as blurred vision, double vision, and difficulty focusing are sometimes reported. Folks may notice this is even more pronounced when triggered or when under stress. When the fight/flight/freeze system is reactivated, vision problems may also ensue.
The fight/flight/freeze system shuts down digestion. This is so the body can focus on protecting itself without using unnecessary energy. Folks often report nausea or digestive disturbances in the moments or days after something fearful occurs. We’ve all experienced that “pit in the stomach” feeling with fear. Or we’ve experienced stressful days where we realize we haven’t eaten in an unusual amount of time.
These experiences are the body’s natural defense against a potentially dangerous situation. However, the body doesn’t always properly restart digestion following a traumatic moment. Digestive disturbances can persist such as nausea, loss of appetite, inability to feel satiated, and loss of desire to eat.
Our energy levels and sleep are also impacted. The body and mind have been through something intense. If we were in our primal days of running away from a saber tooth tiger, we’d run and run and run, and then we’d rest. Modern living is so overstimulating and we’re usually not in a situation where we get to run away from whatever has hurt us.
This isn’t allowing our bodies to properly enter rest and recovery mode. Extreme fatigue is often the result. Our body simply needs to rest but life doesn’t usually allow that. The body will eventually say “enough is enough” and fatigue will kick in.
Fatigue often accompanies sleep issues. We may find ourselves struggling with insomnia or frequent waking in the night. Sometimes folks wake with a start or wake and feel scared. Other people report excessive sleeping but never feel rested. Intense and intrusive dreams may creep in as well.
Sleep is when our bodies rest, our brains process information, and our entire system repairs itself. It is critical to get good sleep following a traumatic experience, but this is often much easier said than done. Sleep support is important when dealing with trauma.
Inadequate sleep combined with an activated fight/flight/freeze response can lead to issues with cognition. When we’re in a stressful/dangerous situation the only thing our brain is focused on is safety. This is another example of where the modern world is making recovery so difficult.
We’ve got far too many things on our minds and too many distractions for our brains to be able to process. Difficulty focusing is one of the most common ways this manifests. People report sometimes feeling like they are in a fog and unable to focus on anything. Difficulty making decisions, even minor ones, is also common.
Our brain and body also shut down libido when in a dangerous situation. This makes sense because sex is the most vulnerable our bodies will ever be. No need for sex if we’re in danger! Following trauma and periods of intense stress, libido can be one of the most difficult things to recover. Women may also notice changes in their menstrual cycles and premenstrual symptoms.
Many couples need help rebuilding their sex lives following (or when working through) trauma. This is normal and nothing to be embarrassed about. Those who have experienced sexual trauma will need additional support. Having a supportive spouse is critical in all areas following trauma, sex is far too often overlooked.
Additional changes regarding sexual arousal and libido may occur. Not everyone finds themselves with low libido. Some find the opposite and may experience incredibly high libido. This is due to the pleasant chemical rush their brain experiences with sexual pleasure.
It becomes somewhat of a coping mechanism. Sometimes people end up with sex addiction or sexual overarousal. Issues with pornography and arousal in response to inappropriate or unusual stimuli may also occur.
A tendency to be jumpy and startle easily may develop following trauma. This is, again, an example of the brain not processing the experience fully. The brain has gone into full alert mode and is constantly on the lookout for danger. Unfortunately, it can become invasive. Folks may jump anytime a door in the house closes or may startle the moment someone touches their back. This can become especially pronounced after another stressful or traumatic moment occurs.
Most of what we’ve discussed so far are physical symptoms and manifestations. There is also a myriad of mental and emotional expressions of trauma. Among the most common are depression and anxiety. These are often diagnosed first because they are more widely recognized than some of these more subtle physical symptoms. Crying for unknown reasons or excessive crying are some of the most identifiable emotional responses.
Trauma is often part of the story for those in addiction recovery programs. What begins as a coping mechanism to avoid the pain can quickly spiral into an addiction. Substances such as alcohol or drugs may be the vice of choice, as well as sex, pornography, masturbation, and orgasm.
However, social media and screen addiction are at the root for many people. Both are culturally acceptable and can be accessed 24/7 no matter where someone is. They’re also much harder to identify and often overlooked.
Some people find themselves with an inability to cry or an inability to connect to their emotions. The emotional response completely shuts down which can sometimes be confusing. Folks may think this means they are coping well or handling things when it is a disconnect from emotion and a way the brain is trying to protect itself.
Intrusive, unwanted, and obsessive thoughts often occur. These may be unwanted memories of the traumatic incident. The mind may replay the situation and try to find ways it could have been avoided. Or we may find ourselves stuck on one specific moment and unable to think about anything else.
Thoughts can also occur regarding one’s self-worth, value, and dignity. The thought-world can become incredibly complicated, and sometimes even scary, after trauma. We could write an entire article just on it. Please know that you don’t have to face it alone. There is support, help, and community available for you as you work to find healing and wholeness in the face of trauma.
“Mannequin”, Courtesy of Kira auf der Heide, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Watching a Geyser”, Courtesy of Michael Henry, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Depressed”, Courtesy of Anh Nguyen, Unsplash.com, CC0 License “Stressed Out”, Courtesy of Nik Shuliahin, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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