This piece is produced in collaboration with DTAP Clinic, A GP+ clinic with a special focus on men’s health, women’s health and sexual health.
Whether emotional or physical, trauma can leave lasting impacts on our well-being. When confronted with traumatic events, our body instinctively releases hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to prime us for immediate action.
These reactions manifest as:
Freeze – Feeling as though you are trapped or unable to act
- Flop – Complying with a situation without the ability to resist
Fight – Actively defending oneself or confronting the threat
- Flight – Escaping or distancing oneself from the danger
Fawn – Appeasing or placating those causing harm
However, the effects of trauma do not end once the event has passed. Persistent stress signs can affect both mental trauma and physical health.
This interplay can subsequently influence our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours in profound ways.
It is also crucial to recognise that everyone’s experience with trauma is different and that all reactions and responses are valid.
This article will expand on the nature of trauma, the physiological repercussions of traumatic experiences, and healing trauma in the body.
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What Is Trauma?
Trauma is an emotional, physical, and psychological response to distressing events. Events such as accidents, assaults, or natural disasters are commonly associated with trauma.
However, any situation that is physically or emotionally threatening can lead to trauma.
Following a traumatic event, people often struggle with feelings of helplessness and shock. They struggle to process their experiences.
Additionally, the effects of trauma can also manifest as physical symptoms. This leads to a strong connection between trauma and physical health.
The persistence and severity of these symptoms can also indicate signs of a deeper issue, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Below are the different types of trauma:
Acute trauma: Arises from a single distressing event like a road accident.
- Chronic trauma: Results from prolonged exposure to highly stressful events, such as child abuse or domestic violence.
Complex trauma: Occurs due to exposure to multiple traumatic events.
Furthermore, there are other less common types of trauma, like secondary or vicarious trauma. This form of trauma affects those who, while not directly experiencing the traumatic event, are in close contact with someone who has.
Professional therapists in the mental health field, as well as family members of those traumatised, are particularly vulnerable to secondary trauma.
Adverse Childhood Experiences
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) include several distressing events faced during the formative years (0-17 years).
These can include direct encounters with violence, abuse, or neglect and indirect exposures such as observing domestic violence or the traumatic loss of a family member.
Furthermore, aspects of the child’s environment, like living in households with substance misuse issues, parental separation, mental health challenges, or the repercussions of parents or any family members being in prison, can significantly affect a child’s foundational sense of security and attachment.
The impact of ACEs goes beyond the immediate emotional and psychological distress. There is a strong link between trauma and physical health, especially when the trauma is chronic.
Such experiences can lead to persistent health complications, mental disorders, and even substance abuse later in life. Moreover, CEs can affect education, limit career prospects, and reduce earning potential.
Effects of Trauma on the Body
Chronic trauma profoundly impacts not only the mind but also the body.
While many associate trauma primarily with psychological signs, the impact of trauma on physical health can be equally distressing.
People who have experienced traumatic experiences might initially approach medical professionals with physical complaints.
They may usually be unaware of the underlying trauma-induced causes.
Biology of Trauma
Trauma significantly affects physical health through various biological mechanisms. One primary impact is on the limbic system, which regulates emotions and memory.
Traumatic experiences can alter its functioning and lead to intense or extreme emotional reactions.
Additionally, trauma influences the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis, causing inconsistent cortisol levels.
Elevated cortisol can weaken the immune system, making people more prone to illnesses.
Neurotransmitter imbalances also occur from trauma, particularly affecting arousal and the endogenous opioid systems. This can result in increased anxiety (eg generalised anxiety disorder) and altered pain perception.
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as abuse or neglect, affect brain development.
They also increase the risk of interpersonal violence in adulthood and predispose individuals to chronic diseases, mental disorders, and substance abuse.
Physical Effects of Trauma
The physical impact of trauma includes a wide range, from sleep disruptions and gastrointestinal disturbances to cardiovascular and neurological complications.
More such physical health issues caused by trauma include musculoskeletal, respiratory, and dermatological disorders.
Additionally, urological issues and substance use disorders can directly result from trauma.
Recognising the complex relationship between trauma and physical health is important for effective diagnosis and treatment.
Somatisation, stemming from the Greek word ‘soma,’ meaning body, refers to the conversion of psychological distress into physical symptoms.
It manifests as a wide array of bodily complaints, such as joint pain or temporary vision loss, despite the absence of an underlying physical cause.
These symptoms are undeniably real, like how nausea eventually leads to actual vomiting, even without any digestive issues.
It is crucial to distinguish somatisation as a symptom rather than a diagnosis. Typically, it is part of conditions like somatic symptom disorder and conversion disorder, although it can co-occur with other ailments.
Seeking help from a qualified counsellor is advisable for those struggling with somatisation.
Somatisation is a common human experience, with people occasionally vomiting due to anxiety, experiencing stress-induced headaches, or feeling physically debilitated after trauma.
However, it transforms into a clinical concern when it persists and causes significant distress.
Hyperarousal is a heightened state of alertness that occurs when individuals afflicted by trauma mentally revisit their traumatic experiences.
Despite the absence of real danger, their bodies respond as if it were imminent. Hyperarousal causes prolonged stress even post-trauma.
Symptoms of hyperarousal include:
Sleep disturbances: Insomnia and recurring nightmares
Concentration difficulties: Impaired focus and cognitive function
Irritability: A sense of annoyance and frustration
Anger and outbursts: Sudden, intense bursts of rage
Panic: Overwhelming anxiety and panic attacks
Constant worry: A perpetual state of apprehension
Easy startle response: Exaggerated reactions to stimuli
Self-destructive behaviour: Risky actions, such as reckless driving or excessive drinking
Profound guilt and shame: An overwhelming burden of self-blame
In children, hyperarousal often manifests through sleep disturbances and trauma-related play.
These symptoms typically coincide with flashbacks, emotional numbing, and avoidance of trauma triggers.
Sleep disturbances resulting from trauma are not uncommon. Following a traumatic experience, people often develop problems with sleeping well.
These may manifest as delayed reactions, including symptoms such as depression, fatigue, nightmares, and, in more severe cases, sleep disorders.
When these issues persist and disrupt daily life, they may indicate the presence of post-traumatic stress.
Although ongoing research seeks to elucidate the precise mechanisms at play, current findings suggest that rapid eye movement (REM) sleep experiences the most significant disruption.
REM sleep plays a pivotal role in storing memories and emotional processing. We see vivid dreams in this stage of sleep.
Trauma survivors frequently experience disturbing dreams and nightmares. These dreams can either directly reenact the traumatic incident or incorporate elements of related emotions, details, and symbols.
Researchers say that trauma-related dreams stem from the brain’s innate fear response, potentially serving as a means for the mind to confront and process the traumatic experience.
Although rare, trauma survivors may encounter other sleep disorders from their traumatic experiences. These include nightmare disorder, periodic limb movement disorder, sleep terrors, and parasomnias such as REM sleep behaviour disorder.
Each of these disorders presents its own unique challenges and requires tailored approaches to intervention and management.
Healing Trauma in the Body
Trauma can leave deep emotional scars that manifest not only in the mind but also in the body. Various therapeutic approaches have been developed to address this connection between psychological trauma and bodily experiences.
Healing trauma in the body involves a nuanced understanding of the interconnectedness of the mind and body. While approaches like CPT and PE primarily target cognitive aspects, EMDR and SE™ delve into the somatic experiences associated with trauma.
Talk therapy, when administered by skilled therapists online, can accompany these methods by shedding light on the broader impact of trauma across various life domains.
When seeking trauma therapy, consulting with a qualified counsellor who specialises in the chosen modality is essential.
Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)
CPT, similar to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), helps people confront and challenge unhelpful thought patterns associated with trauma.
It equips them with skills to manage the emotional distress from past traumatic experiences.
Through guided exploration, people learn to reframe their cognitive narratives and create healthier emotional responses.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) strongly endorses CPT as a recommended treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE)
PE encourages gradual confrontation of trauma-related memories and emotions. Over time, individuals learn that these memories are not dangerous. This therapy allows them to reduce avoidance behaviours.
One gains a renewed sense of control by desensitising the emotional baggage linked to traumatic memories.
Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)
EMDR aims to reduce the emotional intensity associated with specific traumatic memories.
This approach assists individuals in establishing more positive and adaptive beliefs related to the traumatic event.
EMDR has shown remarkable efficacy in providing relief to clients dealing with trauma.
Finding a qualified EMDR therapist can be beneficial.
Somatic Experiencing (SE™)
Developed by trauma researcher Peter A. Levine, SE™ helps individuals:
Recognise trauma symptoms
Access internal resources for healing
Safely revisit traumatic memories for processing
SE™ empowers individuals to address the somatic aspects of trauma and helps develop a deep sense of resilience.
Working with a somatic experiencing practitioner and getting help for physical health issues caused by trauma can be a transformative experience.
Talk therapy, though primarily focused on cognitive aspects, can provide powerful insights into the psychological and physical impact of trauma.
It can explore how trauma affects mental health, physical well-being, relationships, core beliefs, and one’s worldview.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and psychodynamic therapy have efficiently addressed trauma-related issues.
These therapeutic modalities help understand the connection of thoughts, emotions, and sensations tied to past trauma.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
Therapists use a range of strategies within CBT to address trauma-related issues. A fundamental aspect of CBT involves prompting clients to reassess their thought patterns and identify unhelpful cognitive distortions, such as overgeneralisation, negative thinking, and a constant anticipation of catastrophic outcomes.
These distortions are critical factors that help with recovery and well-being. CBT aims to help individuals reframe their understanding of traumatic experiences and regain a healthier perception of themselves and their coping abilities by creating a more balanced and constructive thinking pattern.
In CBT for trauma, controlled exposure to the trauma narrative and related emotions plays a pivotal role. This exposure is planned in collaboration with the client, ensuring they maintain control over the process.
The objective is to diminish avoidance and maladaptive behaviours and associations with the traumatic event. The aim is to ultimately restore the individual’s sense of control, self-assurance, and predictability while reducing their inclination to escape or avoid triggers.
Furthermore, education about the psychological impact of trauma is integral to the treatment. It empowers individuals with knowledge about their condition.
Additionally, relaxation techniques are often taught to manage stress, while crisis management strategies are developed to prepare for potential challenges. The selection of specific CBT elements is tailored to each person’s unique needs and preferences.
Psychodynamic therapy holds that the path to healing trauma lies in understanding one’s relationships.
Active therapist participation and providing feedback on the client’s repressed emotions are two key factors that help facilitate the therapy process.
Psychodynamic therapy serves as a secure technique for clients to renegotiate their relationships. Revealing how suppressed memories manifest within the client-therapist dynamic assists in identifying hidden memories linked to the initial trauma.
Psychodynamic therapy involves several key components:
Recognising Patterns: In this therapy, individuals learn to identify repetitive behaviours and ways they interact with others. This recognition is crucial because it helps them understand how they typically respond to challenges. It also leads to developing healthier coping strategies.
Understanding Emotions: Psychodynamic therapy is good at helping people explore their emotions. By gaining insights into their emotional experiences, individuals can better grasp why they might be struggling and make changes accordingly.
Improving Relationships: A central focus of this therapy is improving how people relate to others. Through their relationship with the therapist, clients can examine and work through issues they may have in other relationships (like with family or friends). This process helps them make positive changes in their interactions with others.
Healing is not linear, and the journey to recovery may vary from person to person. However, these evidence-based therapies and medical interventions often help people reclaim their sense of well-being and resilience after trauma.