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The Impact of Trauma on Your Body

The Impact of Trauma on Your Body

The impact of trauma

At its core, trauma is a wound to your psyche that has far-reaching effects in both body and mind. Trauma has a profound impact on our whole being: It changes your brain, changes how you see the world, and changes how your body reacts to your environment.

Trauma affects everyone differently. As your brain processes what’s happened, your limbic system cortical areas form emotional linkages to memories and the world around you. Those new links can change the things that your brain knows to expect from people, and what sort of reactions people will have to certain behaviors. Because of this, our early experiences have a profound impact on the way we see the world.

The impact of trauma isn’t limited to the mind, though: It also affects the rest of your body. The ongoing nature of traumatic stress means that chronic high levels of stress hormones continue to circulate in your system long after the event has occurred. This continued stress has a negative impact on your health, dramatically increasing your chances for diseases like heart disease, weight gain, diabetes, depression, dementia — and even the likelihood of an early death. This context is incredibly important in understanding trauma, and in working to heal from it.

"The ongoing nature of traumatic stress means that chronic high levels of stress hormones continue to circulate in your system long after the event has occurred." 

Understanding how trauma affects your brain

Several parts of the brain play a role in how we experience trauma:

During the event, adrenaline floods our body. The memory of that event — including the intensity and and emotion — is imprinted into the amygdala, a part of our limbic system. Along with specific cortical areas, the amygdala stores the emotional significance of an event as well as the sensory experience. When you ride a rollercoaster, the sensory elements of “fear, speed, stress, and excitement” are stored alongside the awareness that the event is not life-threatening. When we experience trauma, the event is stored as sensory fragments. Because of this fragmented detail, similar sensory input can trigger the brain to process ordinary events as dangerous.

The front part of the brain (known as the prefrontal cortex), is the rational center, where our consciousness is rooted, alongside our ability to process input, reason, and understand language. When trauma occurs, it triggers a fight, flight, or freeze response, which can cause the prefrontal cortex to shut down. This response is what makes it difficult to think clearly when you feel highly emotional, even in your everyday life. It’s also why activating our rational thought can help us calm down — for example, pausing to “label” our emotions in the moment.

"When trauma occurs, it triggers a fight, flight, or freeze response, which can cause the prefrontal cortex to shut down."

What you can do to heal

No matter how you respond to trauma, one of the best things you can do to help recover is lean on loved ones. While many feel the temptation to self-isolate and stop doing the things you love, numerous studies show that social support helps us heal. Other people can be a source of comfort, an audience as you process, and a distraction. Evolutionarily speaking, our brains evolved to make us social creatures that are soothed by social contact. Similarly, psychotherapy can be another helpful tool, particularly for those experiencing PTSD.

Another powerful tool to encourage healing is to shift the focus out of our heads by moving your body. A movement practice helps teach us how to feel safe and alive in our body again, and can be anything from a morning run or yoga to kickboxing to dance. Staying active may also help keep us from dissociating, something trauma survivors commonly experience. Movement also helps undo the physical effects of trauma (like a tense back), which in turn can help alleviate the mental stress that triggered the response.

No matter the path we take, the goal is the same: The nature of traumatic stress is to cause us to continue to react to a memory as though it were living through it again, feeling that same emotional and physiological stress. When it comes to overcoming trauma, the goal is to shift that experience into a memory where your whole being recognizes it as an event that occurred in the past — and stop responding to it as an immediate threat.

"A movement practice helps teach us how to feel safe and alive in our body again, and can be anything from a morning run or yoga to kickboxing to dance." 

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