How Trauma Affects the Mind and Body

Can Trauma Cause Physical Symptoms?

 

Trauma is an emotional experience, but it also has tangible, physical impacts on the body. This is what happens to both the brain and body when someone is coping with the impact of trauma.

What Is trauma?

In psychological terms, traumatic events are usually described as incidents that make you believe you are in danger of being injured or losing your life. In reality, however, trauma can take many forms. Whether it's a violent assault, difficult childhood, scary car wreck, cancer diagnosis or a long, abusive relationship, trauma can cause a range of long-term emotional and even physical reactions. 

Childhood trauma is more likely to cause long-term mental and physical harm because it occurs when our brains are developing. Whatever the case, when we experience trauma, we can suffer both mentally and physically.

How trauma affects the body

When someone experiences trauma, it's normal for them to have physical sensations such as headaches, fatigue, upset stomach and muscle tension. People may also experience depression and anxiety, plus long-term physical symptoms associated with these issues. 

These symptoms include: 

  • Decreased pain tolerance
  • Sleeping problems
  • Dyspepsia
  • Muscle aches
  • Dyspepsia and gastrointestinal disorders
  • Breathlessness
  • Weight loss

Unfortunately, over time, emotional trauma can lead to long-term health problems. According to research, traumatic events can trigger physical and emotional reactions that can make people more prone to developing serious conditions, including diabetes, stroke, heart attack, obesity and cancer.

Why trauma occurs

Researchers have explored several theories that might explain why trauma affects the body. Many blame increased stress hormones like norepinephrine and cortisol. Other experts support the polyvagal theory, which suggests that perceived danger activates primitive parts of our nervous system, prompting a "fight or flight" response. When this happens, it affects our parasympathetic nervous systems, which control digestion and heart rate, among other things. If you are in a constant state of fight or flight, your body works differently. Over time, this can lead to physical health problems. 

When to seek trauma counseling

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms usually manifest relatively soon after trauma, but many people may not experience any symptoms for weeks, months or even years.

Symptoms of PTSD include crying without obvious reasons, getting angry easily, flashbacks, nightmares, difficulty sleeping and fear. These symptoms can come and go, causing people to think they have recovered, only to be reminded of the trauma again.

There are several therapeutic approaches designed to help someone overcome the effects and symptoms of PTSD. These include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)

  • Psychodynamic psychotherapy

  • Brief therapy

  • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)

  • Play therapy

  • Narrative therapy

  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

If you suspect you are suffering from physical and/or mental symptoms of trauma, consider visiting a therapist. Asking for help to cope with your PTSD is not a sign of weakness. Intense symptoms after a traumatic event are common, even years after the initial event. When you reach out for support from an experienced, compassionate therapist, you will be one step closer to reclaiming control of your life.

Our caring therapists can help you overcome life’s greatest challenges. Contact us today!