It is well known that trauma can impact a person mentally and emotionally. However, what is less talked about is the physical impact trauma can have. Trauma can manifest itself in our body and can even be triggered by touch.
When you are facing a traumatic situation, your body responds by going into the fight-flight-freeze mode to help you survive. Our bodies can only handle so much stress and when you go through a trauma, this can exceed the body’s “stress capacity.” Because it is overwhelming, the trauma is not processed like normal experiences. Your brain does not store memories properly, and they can even be split into fragments. This is why people may have a hard time remembering all or part of their trauma. At that moment, our brain goes to the simpler method of recording and encoding memories which just include images and body sensations.
Because this trauma is not processed, it can easily become triggered (which activates the stress response again) when you are reminded of the trauma. This can be as simple as seeing where the trauma took place, seeing the perpetrator of the trauma, smelling what you smelled when the trauma occurred, or feeling the same bodily sensations that you did during the trauma. An example of this is being touched intimately after you’ve been sexually assaulted, and having all of those feelings from the assault return.
As I’ve mentioned, trauma is stored in the mind and the body. In the body, it is stored primarily in the muscles and fascia (a thin tissue around every organ, blood vessel, bone, and nerve). Your mind does not want that trauma to be triggered, so it disconnects from the parts of the body where the trauma is stored. Because these areas are blocked by our brains, they cannot heal themselves or remain healthy. If trauma is not processed and continues to be stored in the body, it can lead to pain and health issues such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, or obesity.
For your body to release the trauma, you need to build up resources and skills so that you can handle the trauma, without being overloaded again. This is something that your therapist will help you with. The body also needs to become relaxed, so the tension and stress have somewhere to go when being released from the parts of the body where they are stored. The brain then needs to reconnect with the part of your body where the trauma is stored to release it. You may be able to feel the trauma being released from your body as this happens. When I have helped clients process trauma, they have felt pain in their back or other parts of their body when remembering the trauma, and then when it is processed that pain goes away.
While healing from trauma can be a long, difficult, and even scary process, it is beneficial for your mental and physical health to get through it. It is important to work with a therapist who you are comfortable with as they will be there to help and guide you on your journey of recovery.
For more information, an excellent resource to understand the mind-body connection with trauma is The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk.
BioBeats. (2020). How unprocessed trauma is stored in the body. Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@biobeats/how-unprocessed-trauma-is-stored-in-the-body-10222a76cbad.
Cutler, N. (n.d.). Learning How to Unlock Tissue Memory. Integrated Physical Therapy & Wellness & Advanced Therapeutic Care. Retrieved from https://www.iptmiami.com/news/Learning_How_to_Unlock_Tissue_Memory#:~:text=The%20energy%20of%20the%20trauma,progressively%20erodes%20a%20body's%20health.&text=Emotions%20are%20the%20vehicles%20the,find%20balance%20after%20a%20trauma.
Harvard Health Publishing. (2019). Past trauma may haunt your future health. Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/past-trauma-may-haunt-your-future-health.
Van Der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score. Viking Penguin.
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