Recent events have brought the impact of trauma, whether it be from natural disasters or sexual assault, to the forefront of many people’s minds. Unfortunately, the content of the news can trigger trauma memories for many people. Sometimes the trigger and memory are clear (e.g., if I have been raped, watching women talk about being raped on the news or social media causes me to feel incredibly angry or physically exhausted). Sometimes the trigger and memory are less clear (I am watching the news a lot and find I am getting headaches and am not sleeping well). If you are someone whose has experienced trauma (an emotional shock that results in fear and anxiety), it is worth taking some time to listen to what you body may be telling you and engage in self-care.
How Does the Body React to Trauma?
When a person perceives a physical or emotional threat, the body activates its stress response to prepare for emergency. This occurs both in the brain and the body; adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones) are released to attend to the immediate needs of the body, while processes associated with long-term functioning, such as digestion, immune system functioning, and cell repair, are shut down. Blood pressure and blood sugar increase, sending increased strength to our muscles. This helps us go into survival mode, often experienced as “fight, flight, or freeze.”
This response to trauma is evolutionary in nature. Think about a mother bear fighting to protect her cub (fight), a goat running from a tiger (flight), or a deer in headlights (freeze). As humans, we experience trauma as threats to our well-being, and we respond in similar ways, whether or not we believe our life is in danger. Trauma threatens our sense of safety and security, altering our belief systems, worldviews, and–very often–trust in others and ourselves.
Long Term Impact on the Body
Due to the range of physiological responses experienced under extreme threat, our bodies often hold on to traumatic experiences years after the trauma occurred. This can show up in subtle or not-no-subtle ways, both of which can be easy to ignore even when processing your experiences in therapy.
If you turn your awareness to your body, you might notice that you experience frequent stomach aches without explanation; migraines when discussing trauma in therapy or seemingly out of the blue; slight numbness in one area of your body when thinking about the event; dizziness when sharing a traumatic experience with a friend; nerve or muscle pain that flares up at certain times of day.
These are just a few examples of somatic symptoms that you may experience regularly, and might actually be symptoms of your traumatic experience. People often spend years visiting doctors and undergoing various medical treatments without experiencing relief, and without exploring the possible link to earlier trauma. Sometimes people use substances to numb or regulate physical or emotional pain associated with trauma, and become newly aware of somatic symptoms after reducing or discontinuing substance use.
How to Incorporate the Body into Therapy
If you’ve experienced trauma, it is important to discuss any physiological symptoms you observe with your therapist, even if you aren’t sure whether they are connected to your trauma. Your therapist might integrate more mindfulness and somatic techniques into your sessions, encourage you to engage in a yoga practice, recommend acupuncture or massage therapy, or encourage you to consult with a physician.
It is important, in collaboration with your therapist, to develop a mindful awareness of your body while you are processing your trauma and to pay attention to how it responds to your distress. Awareness of your body and the messages it sends you can, with practice, help challenge the fight, flight, or freeze responses that occurred during trauma, and move you toward healthier forms of self-regulation. Being able to listen to and regulate physiological distress can help improve the relationship we have with our bodies, making them more comfortable spaces to inhabit.