How Trauma Affects the Mind and Body
Every day, we put our bodies through various forms of stress. Our capability to effectively react and respond to these stressors has a lot to do with our intentionality in noticing and attending to our physical, mental, and emotional needs and taking care of ourselves. Additional factors such as our overall health, resilience, support, and coping skills can all influence how we manage this stress.
Many times we may not consciously be aware of the stress we’re holding in the body, and we may even recover from stressful incidents without knowing the disturbance was an issue. However, more complex stressors such as traumatic experiences can significantly affect our ability to function while also affecting both the mind and body.
Trauma and Response
As we learned in our last blog about the complex nature of trauma, “big T Trauma” is a life-threatening event that poses a deadly risk or possible harm to a person. These types of traumatic incidents range from being in a natural disaster to witnessing a physical assault. However, we can also experience secondhand trauma by learning about a close family member or friend’s horrific death, or hearing of another’s traumatic encounter.
Whenever we experience trauma, there is an automatic protective response that is triggered. Seeking internal and external safety, we usually respond in either one or a combination of the following three ways:
Fight response: When assessing the threat, the mind believes the best chance of survival is to fight off whatever danger arises.
Flight response: If the crisis is too dangerous to fight and there is potential for harm, we instinctively run away from the threat and seek safety.
Freeze response: A less recognized reaction is to freeze up, stand still, or “play dead” when faced with uncertain danger. The mind signals a less intense response to de-escalate any threatening situation.
Trauma is unpredictable and often out of our control. Similarly, our responses to traumatic situations are out of our control and out of our conscious awareness. Rather, the brain responds instinctually, working in conjunction with the body to coordinate the quickest mode of safety.
How the Body Responds to Trauma
When facing imminent danger, the body’s physiological response protects us and prepares us to respond to the threat. The nervous system plays a crucial part in this process with the involvement of three significant parts of the brain:
The Amygdala (processes emotions and instincts) goes into overdrive, sends an adrenaline rush throughout the body, and pumps oxygen and blood to organs to increase performance.
The Hippocampus (holds memories) stops recording memories and proceeds to send out cortisol, a hormone that reduces the feeling of pain.
The Prefrontal Cortex (regulates emotions and impulses) suppresses its functioning and directs all energy to other parts of the body in order to focus on the threat.
The nervous system works vigorously with our vital organs to safeguard the body from harm and increase the chances of survival.
How Trauma Affects the Body
When experiencing a traumatic trigger — a prompt that evokes thoughts or memories about the incident — the mind responds as if the trauma is current. Unable to determine whether the threat is real or a past memory, the body receives warning signals and proceeds with high alert. It is common for victims of trauma to be overly vigilant and suffer from physical and mental symptoms including:
Flashbacks, intrusive memories, and thoughts
Fatigue, muscle soreness, insomnia
Hypervigilance, irritability, jumpiness
Headaches, upset stomach
A Holistic Approach to Trauma
The nervous system tries to regulate emotions and stabilize the body when dealing with the ongoing challenges of trauma. This constant instability and lack of regulation overwork the body and creates physiological and psychological distress. Distress within the body can present as muscle tension, body pains, and fatigue.
In addition to psychotherapy and medication, holistic treatment methods such as yoga have proven beneficial when addressing trauma-related symptoms. Yoga is a spiritual discipline that emphasizes self-realization, oneness, and the harmonization between mind and body.
Research identifies yoga practices as helpful as they establish stability, focus, strength, and self-control — all of which are significant in healing trauma-related symptoms. Other healing benefits associated with yoga include:
By connecting breathing to body movements, we can practice stabilizing the nervous system and regulating emotional and physiological responses such as reducing anxiety and lowering stress hormones.
When executing yoga positions and postures, we can improve self-confidence and our sense of control within the body.
While connecting with others in the yoga community, we can improve our quality of life and boost self-esteem.
Healing practices such as yoga can provide substantial relief from trauma alongside psychotherapy and medication. Its holistic approach addresses the importance of healing for both the mind and body.
At Coastal Light Counseling, our clinician Arielle helps patients work through trauma using mindful & adaptive yoga-incorporated therapy. She still has some availability, so head to the schedule page on our website to book an appointment today!