Just about everyone faces dangerous or even life-threatening events. Such events are potentially traumatizing and trauma is a response to such events. It’s a form of survival. In the long run, if this trauma is not resolved, it can lead to ongoing emotional issues. It can also have adverse effects on your body.
People may view trauma as being “in your head” but it is also physically remembered. Don’t see this as literally being stored in your bones or muscles. Rather, what is stored is the tendency for your body to respond whenever triggered.
How Does Your Body Remember Trauma?
A traumatic event is one with the power to get your body “stuck” in a state of high alert. You’re always primed for more danger. Everything is seen through the lens of a potential threat. The stress from the experience has created a new default setting. As touched on above, it’s not held in the way that, say, glycogen is stored in your muscles. Rather, the perception of ongoing danger alters how your brain works.
In times of high stress, hormones like cortisol are released into your bloodstream. It’s there to facilitate survival. But if you get stuck in this fight-or-flight mode, the emotional centers of your brain begin to behave differently.
This part of your brain is designed to regulate emotions and assign meaning to them. Trauma can cause the amygdala to become overactive. It literally grows in size and influences how your painful memories are stored. Instead of being stored within the context of what happened, such memories become sensory fragments. Thus, anything that reminds the amygdala of the traumatic event can be enough to trigger a survival response.
As the amygdala grows in size and prominence, it weakens its connection to the hippocampus. The hippocampus, designed to regulate memory and learning, shrinks. It begins to prioritize the storage of negative memories. The hippocampus is not able to react properly when the amygdala is triggered and sets off an alarm.
The Prefrontal Cortex
The PFC plays an important role in rational thought and decision-making. However, after a trauma, it can have its functions overridden by the now-dysfunctional amygdala and hippocampus. While the system is set up to allow the PFC to make sense for the rest of the brain, trauma shifts that dynamic, and this safety valve is absent.
Changes in Your Brain Result in Physical and Emotional Symptoms
Common post-trauma triggers are related to the sensory fragments mentioned earlier, such as:
- Images, sounds, smells, and tastes
- Specific people (or people who remind you of specific people)
- Geographical locations
- Emotional situations and states
In turn, these triggers cause symptoms like:
- Muscle aches and tension
- Chest pain and tightness
- Chronic pain and headaches
- Sleep disturbances like nightmares
- Digestive problems
- Decreased ability to focus, concentrate and remember
- General brain fog
- Feeling overwhelmed and edgy
Put simply, the body remembers trauma and — in the name of protecting you — lowers your tolerance of anything it perceives as distressing.
You Can Heal From Trauma
Research suggests that you can address and reverse the negative changes to your brain caused by trauma. A huge step in this critical direction involves working closely with an experienced therapist. Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are very common but also very treatable. A wide range of modalities exist — all of which can relieve your brain and body of a massive burden.
If you or someone you know is struggling with trauma-related issues, I’d love to talk with you. Together, we can move you onto the path toward healing and recovery with trauma therapy. Let’s start that process.