How Trauma Affects Your Entire Body

One evening while watching TV with her husband, Amy Orr experienced an upper abdominal searing sensation that caused her to fall to the floor. She initially believed it to be food sickness because she had just finished a large supper. But after a few days, her husband took her to the emergency room, where doctors were unable to identify the issue. Although testing were inconclusive, they assumed she had gallstones, so they gave her pain medication and sent her on her way.

That evening, the discomfort subsided, but it persisted for months, especially after Amy ate. Numerous times more, she ended up in the emergency room, and no one—not even her gastroenterologist, who performed some tests—could figure out why. She dropped so much muscle and more than 70 pounds over time that she was unable to walk.

Amy, a 35-year-old editor from Waterloo, Canada, recalls, “I was crying all the time because it was draining in every way: physically, intellectually, and emotionally.” “I was so worried that it would never go away and that I would always be in excruciating pain. And it was particularly terrible to think that my doctors didn’t give a damn.

Another group of doctors ultimately identified the diseased gallbladder after a torturous year. After surgery, Amy’s pain subsided. But Amy’s journey was just getting started since a different form of suffering quickly followed. She would frequently wake up crying and gasping for air from nightmares in which she was trapped and suffering harm she had no control over. Amy developed an obsession with managing her nutrition, sleep, and exercise to prevent even the thought of experiencing discomfort. And any pain—even a tiny one like a paper cut—sent her into a trembling, violent panic attack.

When I lightly burned my hand on the stove, I believed the pain in my hand meant the abdominal pain had returned and I was going to die. My husband had to stop me from dialling 911, Amy says. “I reacted irrationally,”

Amy was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when she brought up this with the therapist she had been attending. “I regarded that as being overly dramatic. You can only acquire that through combat or being physically attacked, claims Amy. But when her mental problems got worse, she understood that they were in fact related to her year of suffering and anxiety. Over time, she was able to return to normal thanks to therapy sessions, becoming conscious of her PTSD symptoms, and rediscovering how her body worked.

When hardship keeps hurting

Although trauma has always been a component of the human condition, it seems to be more prevalent today. We’re witnessing firsthand the consequences that traumatic, emotionally charged situations may have long after they’re finished thanks to mass shootings, devastating disasters and floods, and the #MeToo movement that brought sexual assault to light. The COVID-19 pandemic, in the opinion of many scientists, will also have a devastating and long-lasting impact.

It is evident to those who study the issue that traumatic experiences can result from a variety of situations other than combat or an assault in the middle of the night. According to Rachel Yehuda, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, any watershed event—or set of events—that causes you to perceive your life in terms of “before” and “after” might have detrimental implications on your mental health.

And according to James Gordon, M.D., the founder and executive director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine as well as a clinical professor of psychiatry and family medicine at Georgetown Medical School, something similar is probably going to happen to each of us at some point. Thousands of professionals have been trained by Dr. Gordon and his staff to assist trauma sufferers all around the world. “It is traumatizing to be in a demanding or abusive relationship or workplace. The loss of a loved one, a life-threatening illness, or discrimination are all difficult experiences, he adds. Sometimes a trauma has no lasting effects, while other times your reactions last long after the threat has passed.

Your brain on trauma

PTSD is a significant factor in how such reactions show up. Although the DSM-5, considered to be the holy book of psychiatry, restricts the diagnosis of PTSD to those who have experienced sexual violence, major injury, or have been threatened with death. Dr. Gordon believes that this list is far too restrictive. According to him, you don’t necessarily need to sustain physical hurt or the most severe emotional shock to endure post-traumatic stress. Treatment is only feasible if those who are suffering in silence are aware of where to turn for assistance.

Neglecting to do so may have serious repercussions. Even the most terrifying physical or emotional shocks used to be met with the expectation that the victim would “get over it” by stuffing the experience. When soldiers returned from battle, they never discussed what they had witnessed. After giving birth to a stillborn child, women were recommended to get pregnant again right afterwards. According to Yehuda, people are starting to understand that in order to fully recover, you must give your body and mind time to comprehend what happened and embrace the possibility that it may have permanently altered you in certain ways.

Traumatic events can have immediate aftereffects, including symptoms including anxiety, nightmares, insomnia, and/or despair. But receiving inadequate care can also put you at risk for developing chronic physical illnesses. For instance, a research published in JAMA Internal Medicine indicated that compared to other women, raped women were more likely to develop endometriosis and pelvic inflammatory disease later in life.

Your body on trauma

Trauma has a strong negative impact on the nervous system, which causes all of this to occur. All of us are familiar with the fight-or-flight response, the physiological and chemical responses to stress that enable us to either engage an attacker or flee from it. An extremely distressing experience intensifies this effect. The body repeatedly cranks back up as you think back on the incident or if there are recurring incidents (such as having an abusive boss or living with a violent partner), which can cause inflammation and other harm to the body and mind.

Experts now recognize that freezing is an alternative to fighting or running when neither of those actions is possible. Think of a mouse that ran from a cat but is now impaled by its teeth. Endorphins that block pain are released during the freeze response, which also aids in the animal’s (and our) psychological detachment from the terrifying situation.

Traumatic experiences may be so overpowering that the mind may try to block them out.

Because of this, victims of terrible events occasionally “leave their bodies” or dissociate for a while. When reminded of a terrible event years later, those with PTSD may freeze or even disassociate. According to Dr. Gordon, when strong fight-or-flight (or, particularly, freeze) reactions are set off during an initial trauma, a person’s memory isn’t stored in the brain in the typical logical way. Instead, bits and pieces of thoughts, feelings, sounds, images, and bodily experiences are input. According to Dr. Gordon, this explains why a woman who describes a sexual assault decades later may not recall what she was doing just before the attack but can provide an accurate account of the assailant’s voice pitch or breath scent. And that is the reason experiencing a comparable sensation, like Amy did whenever she experienced even slight pain following her incident, can drive the brain to have a disproportionate response.

Can’t remember, can’t forget

This type of suppressed memory affected a yoga instructor in her 50s named Rachel (last name withheld). Rachel also struggled with trusting people and experienced recurrent body insecurities and inexplicable lack of confidence. She made the decision to see a therapist two years ago after unexplainably crying in a doctor’s clinic.

At that point, Rachel started to remember how her mother had frequently labelled her a failure and a disappointment and had lost her temper without prior notice, screamed at or hit her. Being critical of your mother is quite taboo, therefore Rachel claims that she didn’t. Over time, she was able to let go of her sadness and self-doubt by working with the therapist and taking ownership of her narrative by writing it down.

According to Shari Botwin, a certified clinical social worker in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and the author of Thriving After Trauma, childhood trauma like Rachel’s is particularly harmful. “Children are not as capable of processing emotions as adults are. Additionally, she adds, kids frequently experience dread or humiliation because they mistakenly believe they are to fault for what happened.

Trauma can overpower even people who are aware of their guilt. Interior designer and entrepreneur Robin Wilson, 50, believed she had overcome her problems when she left her violent marriage five years prior.The following several years saw Robin’s weight fluctuate by 50 pounds while she experienced stress rashes, gastrointestinal problems, and migraines. She visited several doctors for her physical symptoms before being sent to a veteran’s expert who made the diagnosis of complex PTSD, a form of the disorder brought on by experiencing several traumatic incidents or a protracted episode as opposed to just one. “I broke down in tears because I knew he was correct. Everything began to make sense,” claims Robin.

A stronger future

The idea of a silver lining isn’t simply a cliché; you might actually emerge from adversity stronger. However, nobody intentionally seeks out hardship. Baltimore resident Tina Collins, 54, believed she had already experienced the worst that life could offer her: She was given a psychosis diagnosis in her early adult years, and years of full-time caregiving for her aging, crippled parents left her feeling overwhelmed. She persisted, but two years ago she and her husband were forced to flee their burning home because it had been completely destroyed.

However, Tina discovered that she was applying lessons from her history. After a trauma, you “learn that you have to focus just on what’s immediately in front of you for an hour at a period, and to give yourself permission to fully feel all your feelings,” she claims. She did experience PTSD symptoms including trouble sleeping, sporadic crying spells, and jumping at sounds that reminded her of the glass and metal she had heard shattering all around her, but they eventually went away. “You feel like, I survived that, so I can take whatever that comes my way,” she says after overcoming trauma.

Try a trauma-specific therapy.

Some methods may actually free up memories and feelings that have become stifled. These consist of:

  • Prolonged Exposure, in which you reexperience the trauma as a therapist guides you to stay grounded
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Processing (EMDR), during which a therapist uses one of various techniques to help you safely process traumatic memories
  • Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), an eight-week program that teaches you to focus on the here and now rather than ruminating on the past or the future

Sit in silence.

Meditation may reduce your fight-or-flight response, improve your ability to think rationally, and mend trauma-damaged brain connections. According to Dr. Gordon, “the vast majority of people who practice it for just 10 minutes perceive an improvement straight away.”

Shake and dance.

Nature wants us to get rid of physical waste before stress embeds in our cells, as you can see when you watch ducks shake off their feathers after a fight. While other experts advise yoga or walking, Dr. Gordon likes a method he developed in which you shake your entire body aggressively for five minutes, pause for three minutes to notice the stillness, and then dance to your favourite music for an additional five.

Make dietary changes.

According to Dr. Gordon, your body can destroy the villi in your intestines and change the bacteria that maintains your gut’s health by producing chemicals following a traumatic incident. Irritable bowel syndrome may be a prevalent symptom of PTSD because of this. Instead of reaching for the sweet and creamy comfort foods you might crave, you should focus on eating fruits, vegetables, and proteins that are therapeutic.

Seek assistance.

Find a support group (online or in person) and get in touch with friends and acquaintances who have experienced significant trauma because loneliness and isolation give trauma more force. After a traumatic event, “a healing group that surrounds someone can be vital to helping them feel nourished and protected,” adds Yehuda.

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