“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.”
- Bessel A. Van Der Kolk, "The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma"
When we think of the aftermath of trauma, we often focus on how the brain is affected. We wonder what the person is thinking and feeling and usually encourage them to go process through their trauma logically. However, logically working our way through trauma can only go so far. Complete healing from trauma cannot occur if we do not also look at the effects of the trauma on the body.
Due to the lack of education or acknowledgement of trauma in our society, when people experience a trauma, they often do not recognize or feel the affects. One of the most common responses to trauma is to try and shut out the feelings that occur from the trauma and move on in the best way possible. However, because our bodies don't know what do with trauma and it can become too much for our body to hold, causing it to get stuck until the trauma is processed.
You have probably heard of Fight or Flight and Freeze. When someone does not know what to do in response to fear, they freeze. Freezing can be helpful in situations in which someone needs to pretend to be unresponsive, to prevent predators from further acting. The Gazelle is a perfect example. If you can imagine a Gazelle running from a Cheetah. When imagining this, it is difficult to imagine the Gazelle having any chance to survive. However, they have a coping mechanism of playing dead. Cheetahs do not have any interest in eating something that is already dead. Therefore, it then leaves the Gazelle and moves on. What is miraculous about this whole situation though is what the Gazelle does to further process the fear and trauma that just occurred. It shakes its entire body and pumps its legs as if it were running. Trauma is not intended to be idle. Therefore, by freezing, the Gazelle traps the trauma. By shaking and imitating the running motion, the Gazelle is able to release the trauma and actions that were frozen.
We as humans can learn from the Gazelle. We don't often give ourselves time to stop and shake the trauma off. We instead try to ignore and forget what just occurred so that we can best move on in life with the least amount of pain possible. We tend to want to be sedentary after traumatic events and that can leave us completely lifeless. However, that is only delaying the shake off of the trauma.
“After a traumatic experience, the human system of self-preservation seems to go onto permanent alert, as if the danger might return at any moment.”
― Judith Lewis Herman
An example of fight or flight is: Suzie just snuggled into bed after a long day of work. Her husband will be home soon, but isn't expected to be home for another hour. She picks up her favorite book to read when all of the sudden she hears rustling at her front door. Suzie listens closely, meanwhile her breathing quickens, she starts to shake, and she frantically looks for something to use to protect herself against the intruder. She picks up her glass water bottle and starts to make her way down the stairs slowly. As she nears the bottom of the stairs, she hears her husband say, "Hi Honey". Suzie breathes a sigh of relief. However, the physiological response is not over. It will now take her body a moment to stabilize and the adrenaline to stop pumping. Suzie will be able to move on with her night after the stabilization takes place. However, for someone that has experienced trauma, this situation may affect them for the rest of the night. They may even get angry at their husband for not telling them that he was coming home earlier than expected. The stabilization period is much longer for someone who has experienced trauma.
While Fight or Flight is necessary for our survival, we can often get stuck in a state of hyper-arousal (see Blog 1 - How Trauma Affects the Brain). We find ourselves unable to regulate ourselves once the threat ceases, as there is a fear that the trauma will continue to occur. All stimuli can become a constant threat to our safety, which becomes paralyzing. Common physiological responses that come with fight or flight are: anxiety, rapid heart beat, tunnel vision, nausea, shaking, sweating, dizziness, shortness of breath, and panic attacks.
Re-create the Trauma
Why is it that we find ourselves feeling like we are constantly in bad situations after we experience a trauma? We as humans strive for equilibrium or balance. Equilibrium is defined usually by your upbringing and what was normal for you and your family. However, just because something was normal to you and your family does not necessarily mean that it was healthy. But we get stuck in these ruts of normalcy - because that is what is most comfortable.
If we grew up in a home that tended on the side of chaos, we tend to desire to re-create that level of chaos, because that is what feels comfortable - and therefore less anxious. Why would someone choose to do this? They don't, it occurs subconsciously. When we experience Trauma as children, it often gets repeated throughout life. Trauma creates for dysfunctional thought processes that lead us to believe that what we have experienced is normal, therefore, we tend to live in situations that mimic this normalcy, even if they are harmful to us.
Examples of this are:
When someone starts to feel sensations in their body where the trauma occurred, most commonly felt with sexual abuse, this is what is referred to as a body memory. This side effect of trauma can be one of the worst and can make one feel like our body is betraying us. Body memories can be very triggering and bring the survivor back to the traumatic moment.
Touch to the body is something that often becomes uncomfortable to someone who has survived sexual abuse. Touch did not feel safe during the trauma and therefore can become a generalized feeling after the trauma. Even touch from a safe person feels unsafe. Touch can also be a trigger and cause body memories.
Someone who has experienced trauma can feel so detached from themselves and their body, almost as if it doesn't belong to them. This dissociation can cause us to feel as if we are looking through the lens of someone else's life.
Often times, a trauma survivor lives in the past and are often stuck in the memory of the trauma. It is difficult for them to be in the present and acknowledge that the past trauma is not a current threat in the moment. This may have been their way to cope during the trauma, by either going to an imaginary place or somewhere in their brain to therefore survive the trauma. However, this dissociation can occur even after the trauma if a situation is ever feeling too threatening. Dissociation appears as someone being zoned out or not in the moment.
We very often neglect our body and usually forget that it needs tending to in more ways than just eating healthy. Someone who has experienced trauma can feel so detached from themselves and their body, almost as if it doesn't belong to them. This dissociation can cause us to feel as if we are looking through the lens of someone else's life. This type of body dissociation is often associated closely to sexual trauma.
I have discussed above how trauma has an affect on the body. Therefore, it is inevitable that if trauma is having such an affect on your body, there are bound to be health issues that you experience. Why? Because long term effects of being hyper-vigilant and the stress that goes along with it can start to physically affect you due to the amount of adrenaline and cortisol that are being released into your body so often.
There is a misconception that if you are a healthy individual - eat well, work out, etc. then you are healthy. However, being healthy includes both physical health and mental health. Mental health issues do affect the body. Therefore, it is important to address Trauma's affect on your life.
Eating Disorders are a very common effect of Trauma to the body. Eating Disorders are a complicated side effect to deal with though, as we all have to eat in order to survive. However, eating can be so triggering for some, as they view their bodies so differently than anyone else views them. Often times, Eating Disorders are a reaction to sexual abuse, as one might over eat to appear "ugly". Eating Disorders can also be someone's only form of control in their uncontrollable, chaotic life. With eating disorders, it is difficult for someone to see their body in its reality, as they have their own reality and perception.
Response to Trauma
Cutting is something that is a prominent response physically to trauma. Often, the inner emotions that we are dealing with become overwhelming. Cutting is often something that eases this, as the focus becomes on the outer pain that is created. This pain distracts from the inner pain and often brings about feelings of "release". What does that mean? Well actually, cutting is similar to exercise in that it releases endorphins, which is what can help create that feeling of release. Now, is exercising a much preferred form of releasing endorphins over cutting - ABSOLUTELY. I am just explaining why one often engages in cutting.
Many parents become concerned that cutting means that their child is suicidal. This is a very common misconception. While it is important to take cutting seriously and help someone establish better coping skills, it absolutely makes sense as to why someone turns to cutting when they have experienced trauma.
Another response to trauma is Substance Abuse. Substance Abuse can involve alcohol or any drug of choice that allows for someone to feel numb. Once that high/numbness is reached and the realization that this substance can take everything away momentarily, it usually becomes an addiction. However, once this occurs, it becomes too difficult to stop, as the body is usually chemically dependent at that point. This leads to a different issue though, as there are now two issues that need to be resolved.
What is Next?
We have now explored how Trauma Affects the Brain, as well as now how Trauma Affects the Body. Next week I will explore what can be done to help alleviate some of the symptoms that come from Trauma. I hope you will continue to join with me on this journey. I have so loved being able to connect with you.
Do you have trauma that you have tried to shove in a dark corner, but it continues to affect your everyday life?
Brittany Wingfield// 720-336-0913//
Nurtured Hearts Counseling's Blog
I am a Licensed Therapist in Lone Tree, Colorado and my goal for this blog is to explore taboo subjects that no one is willing to talk about and I am eager to bring awareness to.