Could trauma be at the root of your physical issues?

If you feel like you’ve tried everything to manage your digestive issues, your muscle pain, or your chronic headaches, I wonder if you’ve ever considered the possibility that traumatic stress might be at play. Many people who experience unexplainable physical symptoms have underlying traumatic stress that is impacting their physical well-being. 

Because it’s not the way that most providers are trained, traumatic stress often gets overlooked as a source of physical discomfort. We’ve lived in a culture that has tried to separate the brain and body for a long time, and yet they function interdependently. 

The invisible wound

Have you ever experienced a rush of symptoms, like intense anger, anxiety, fear, followed by body sensations, tightness of chest, muscle tension, heat? What if all that was linked to a past aversive experience your brain hasn’t fully processed? 

As a trauma therapist, this is a common conversation I have with folks coming to therapy with a variety of overwhelming symptoms impacting their life and relationships. In clinical circles, trauma is commonly referred to as, “the invisible wound.’ It’s not easily identifiable, because it’s an internal experience, and culturally the word “trauma” has been deemed “worst possible” scenario. 

Our society tends to believe trauma only happens if you go off to war, which yes that is one way trauma can happen, and its possible my being laughed at in front of the whole class in fifth grade is traumatic too. 

The truth is, our judgment around trauma is exactly why trauma is missed, we are not educated on the prevalence and normality of trauma in mental health. Or, more importantly, the body. Trauma actually has everything to do with the body. 

How trauma impacts the brain 

Let’s start by understanding how something like being embarrassed in fifth grade could cause trauma. We’re about to get brainy!

When traumatic stress happens, our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), in charge of unconscious bodily functions, like breathing, engages our Sympathetic Nervous System into fight or flight mode.  If that process is overwhelmed at the time of the event, the event becomes stuck. 

Here’s how it happens when we experience something aversive:  I’m 11 years old, I just messed up my presentation in front of my entire class, and everyone is pointing and laughing at me. At this point, areas of the brain called the neocortex that normally process, store, and metabolize information send this information to a different part of the brain, the limbic system. The limbic system is our emotion center. Our emotion center is ruled by a little almond shaped structure called the amygdala, in charge of processing emotional content. 

While those fifth graders are laughing, pointing, and shaming me, the amygdala recognizes this experience is a threat and proceeds to send the alarm to other areas of the brain. These are the areas that activate our fight or flight modes while simultaneously engaging adrenal glands to release cortisol and adrenaline (so you are ready to mobilize if need be), and the hippocampus, in charge of storing and remembering that event.

If an event does not fully process during all of that, it becomes stuck and stored in the body. Once stuck, it has the opportunity to be “triggered,” as if the event happened yesterday. 

Our amygdala is extremely sensitive and always on high alert; anything linked to that stored memory could be a trigger. Let’s say I’m in a meeting 20 years later, a colleague makes a joke, suddenly a room full of people are pointing and laughing.  My amygdala reads this as “that thing in fifth grade is happening again!” and suddenly I’m anxious, shaking, and sweating. The ANS system reacts just as intensely as when they originally experienced the event. 

Traumatic stress takes a toll on the body

Just as it is important to understand how traumatic stress is stored, is understanding how traumatic stress can affect our body. Here are some areas that are commonly affected by traumatic stress: our digestive system, sleep rhythms, reproductive functions (hormonal levels), eating issues, respiratory and cardiovascular systems,  immune problems, and chronic muscle tension. That is a lot of areas to be affected!

Can you see how easily someone might miss the fact they have traumatic stress and believe it’s “something else?”

The disappointing fact is that few people understand how problems in these areas are related to their traumatic stress.  In my work as a trauma therapist, much of my focus is bringing attention to the body and educating the impact of traumatic stress. Culturally, we are lacking awareness. It’s not uncommon for someone to believe body issues are unrelated to mental or emotional issues, which couldn’t be more wrong.  The body always keeps the score. 

The role of integrative therapies 

Traumatic stress is experienced through the body and mind, and thus traumatic stress is not something talk therapy alone can treat. Talk therapy is only accessing our neocortex (which is not where the trauma is stored), meaning that we can talk and talk and never feel relief. In fact, most people start to lose hope in therapy altogether and give up.

Integrative approaches, combining both body oriented and trauma specific modalities, is the most effective way to get to healing. This might mean having a collaborative care team consisting of a nutritionist, physical therapist, trauma informed yoga teacher, and somatic therapist. It depends on the individual. There is no “one way” to treat trauma. 

First and foremost, someone dealing with trauma needs to be assessed by a trauma-informed mental health professional. The therapist will assess where the issues are manifesting and create a comprehensive treatment plan. This is important to developing an appropriate approach that is safe and won’t re-traumatize the individual.  This process cannot be substituted or skipped. 

While working with a therapist on the first step of stabilization, we teach our nervous system how to calm itself and regulate emotions. This can be achieved through things like breathing techniques, art, trauma-informed yoga, and other mindfulness based practices. Mindfulness is an important tool and it can take many forms.

Next, we want to start processing the trauma, a therapist might use modalities such as Eye Movement Desensitization (EMDR) or somatic practices. Some people might benefit from integrating a nutritionist for digestive issues or physical therapy for pain in the body. Again, it depends on the person. The take-away is that a combined mind-body approach is most effective. 

You deserve healing

Trauma takes a village, and what’s wrong with that? Our body works very hard for us; it deserves a village of care.

Learning to better understand the mind-body connection is smart and productive. Making friends with our body is how we thrive.  Trauma healing will be complex and hard work, that doesn’t mean you should avoid it, or fear the process. I have had the privilege to witness so many incredible transformative experiences while individuals go through healing. You deserve that too. 

Jen is a licensed counselor who is skilled in working with people struggling with body image, self-esteem, grief, life transitions, mood concerns, and perfectionism. She also provides EMDR therapy for individuals with trauma.

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