It’s common knowledge, at this point, that “the mind and body are connected.” We’ve heard “the body keeps the score,” “the body bears the burden,” and “the body says no.”
But for as much as it’s called out, we don’t always internalize what the link between emotional trauma and the body actually means. This means that we don’t always identify the impact of trauma on our physical wellbeing–or how to remedy it.
How emotional trauma impacts the body
It’s tempting to separate our feelings or overall emotional health and our physical symptoms or the way that our body feels, largely because we live in a society where they are treated as though they aren’t related. But developing an awareness of the mind-body link can help you work through trauma’s impact on your body.
The mind-body connection isn’t just a hypothesis. Extensive research backs it up. Here are some of the ways we know trauma can affect the body:
See your doctor if you experience any of the physical health concerns below. While trauma is affiliated with various health conditions and detriments, it is crucial to rule out any other potential causes. If you are in immediate danger, please go to the nearest emergency room.
Insomnia is a common sleep disorder. It is said to be even more likely among those with PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD is a condition that affects some, but not all, people who have encountered or survived trauma.
While certain traumas can put someone at a higher risk, this is something anyone can struggle with. There’s a large crossover between anxiety and insomnia, too.
Gastrointestinal (GI) distress is incredibly common, but it’s something we don’t tend to talk about much. While it may be considered a “taboo” topic to some, it can impact daily life seriously, so it’s important to talk about. People who survive trauma are at a higher risk, statistically, for various GI concerns. This may have to do with Vagus nerve activity.
One example is IBS or irritable bowel syndrome. Like chronic pain, IBS is linked to trauma. It is also linked to anxiety and depression, both of which trauma is a risk factor for the development of.
Fear responses, which include fight, flight, freeze, and fawn are often symptomatically both mental and physical. Fear responses tend to arise when a trigger shows up.
When you encounter a trigger that reminds you of a traumatic event, you might freeze up or feel your body go into defense mode, so to speak. You could experience physical anxiety symptoms with any of these responses, too: rapid heartbeat, nausea, and so on. Afterward, you might feel exhausted. Like pain, trauma is linked to fatigue.
Stress is tough on the body, and any stimulus that triggers these responses is most certainly a stressor.
Like with trouble sleeping and various other concerns that may impact a person’s physical health or functioning, those with post-traumatic stress disorder are shown to carry a higher risk of headaches and migraines. This may be in part due to the muscle armoring and sympathetic activation associated with trauma.
Body aches, pains, and tension
Also in part due to armoring, people who survive trauma are more likely to live with chronic pain. For instance, the diagnosis of fibromyalgia carries a tie to emotional trauma. Additionally, trauma is one risk factor for the development of anxiety disorders, which are also linked to muscle tension, body aches, and chronic pain.
Addressing the impacts of trauma on your body
Not all solutions to the impact of trauma on the body are physical. In fact, social support, stress reduction, and seeking help for mental health concerns can all have a positive impact on the body. This is referred to as influencing the physical nervous system from the “top down.” For example, support for PTSD can be connected not just to lower levels of anxiety and depression, but lower levels of pain, too. Below are both physical and emotional ways to help reduce trauma’s effects on your body.
Validate your own experience
To address trauma, it can help to first validate yourself. No matter how invalidating the world is or can be, you deserve to acknowledge what hurt you. Your physical and mental health don’t need to suffer just because the world doesn’t “get it” or because we’re so often taught to brush things off when we struggle.
Many people find books related to trauma, personal stories, and anecdotes from people who have survived the same helpful for self-validation.
Validating yourself allows you to reach out for help. Trauma without validation can lead to isolation, and isolation leads to a number of negative health outcomes including earlier mortality, poor sleep, and worse cardiovascular health.
Use the buddy system to keep moving
When you’ve experienced trauma, you may feel uncomfortable going out, moving your body, and expressing yourself. However, physical activity is a known way to minimize trauma symptoms in the body.
If at all possible, try to find a buddy to keep you accountable and keep you moving. This could be a friend to go on a weekly outing with, a loved one who annoys you until you send a gym selfie, or the other members of a local hiking club. Regardless, exercise is a way to send a safety message to your body, counteracting trauma’s alert signals.
Prioritize stress management
Emotional trauma can put your body into a perpetual state of stress. Stress management is one of the best ways to support your overall wellbeing, with lower stress levels linked to better heart health, stronger immune functioning, and even a longer life. Try the following activities especially favored by trauma survivors for ease of use:
Mental health therapy is linked to positive physical health outcomes among those living with various concerns and conditions. Not sure how to get therapy covered by insurance?
Build a support network
We all need a quality support network. But when healing from trauma, social support can be an especially powerful addition to the care of medical and mental health professionals.
Look for people who you feel good around, who value you as a unique individual, and who respect your boundaries and autonomy.
What if it’s hard to find people you can confide in and you aren’t sure where to turn? You may find free support groups in your area or online, or use an online peer support network like Supportiv.
The impact of an understanding, empathetic system of support should never be under-valued, and while everyone’s support network looks a little bit different, what matters most is that you have the connection and care you need.
None of this means that, if you address trauma and expand your circle of support, any physical symptoms will disappear. However, connecting with others matters when it comes to health. The research is there to show it.
What if you need help now?
If you are in need of immediate support, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “HOME” to 741741 on your mobile phone. You can also find the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/.
The LGBTQIA+ community is more likely to experience various forms of trauma, including houselessness, physical violence, and bullying. Please contact the https://www.thetrevorproject.org/ on their website, by calling 1-866-488-7386, or by texting “START” to 678-678.