There is a common misconception that trauma is “all in the mind”, when, in fact, this is not all true. Trauma attaches itself to the body and can be held in there for a long time, to which symptoms may only appear even years later. Likewise, sometimes our body can take a whole lot longer than our “logical minds” to overcome trauma.
According to experts, when we experience trauma, our nervous system stays on a high alert (flight, fight, freeze response) which can ultimately have a negative impact on our bodies, and our way of life.
It can be hard to picture how trauma can be held in the body; it is not physically held within the muscles or bones, it is stored in our emotional centres of the brain are: hippocampus and amygdala, which are also the parts of the brain where memory is stored.
These areas of our brain activate the body when triggered by a trauma, for example hearing a song on the radio that may have been playing on the day of the trauma can send your body and brain in to panic.
So, how does this happen exactly?
Our brains release a hormone called Cortisol, which is basically known as adrenaline and comes from the adrenal glands at the top of our kidneys. When we need it, Cortisol is great because it energises us through stressful situations and keeps us alert when there is potential danger.
However, when we have past trauma that remains unaddressed, our brains release cortisol regularly keeping us alert to threats. This is when it can become dangerous.
Cortisol shuts down any system in our body that is not needed in order to survive a potential threat, one of these systems is the immune system.
So, let’s say you have experienced a trauma, left it untreated because your “logical mind” seems fine, yet months later you find yourself constantly feeling unwell, this could be due to the fact that your brain is picking up triggers almost unconsciously and is shutting down your immune system any time that these triggers act as a threat.
However, you may be experiencing levels of hyper alertness that you might not be aware of, resulting in constant bursts of cortisol being pumped into the body - the lack of immunity over time may contribute to heart attacks, asthma, heart disease, obesity, or even cancer.
While it would be ideal to say that the sooner that you address trauma, the easier it will be in the long run to stay happy and healthy, the reality is that trauma, our responses to it, emotionally and physically, our ability to cope, are interconnected and complex.
Our bodies cannot tell the difference between physical and emotional danger and can overreact by jumping into fight-or-flight mode even when danger is not significant, or even there at all.
This constant fight-or-flight experience can over time take a real toll on our body.
How do I recognise trauma in the body?
Trauma can leave a significant physical imprint on your body, so here are some ways that your body may be showing signs of trauma:
Feeling on edge
Frequent cold/flu and infections
Loss of sexual desire
As well as mental health issues such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety.
Everybody reacts differently to trauma, but these are some common signs to look out for.
According to Bessel Van der Kolk MD, our body can remember trauma even when in our minds we cannot. Which is why healing can seem quite difficult as we may think we are doing well, but our body can be triggered, and trauma becomes our reaction making it feel like we take 3 steps forward and 1 step back. However, this is all part of healing and is completely normal.
Our tip is to, even when we don’t think that we are struggling from a traumatic event, reach out for help. Leaving your trauma unaddressed will likely cause more pain in the long run. Being prepared to and processing your trauma will give you a head start to a healthier life.