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March 28, 2023

The Effects of Trauma on our Bodies

As women of color, we are confronted daily with various forms of trauma, whether it be systemic oppression, discrimination, intergenerational, or repeated microaggressions. The impact of these traumas goes beyond the obvious emotional and mental effects, often leading to physical symptoms and health issues. Trauma doesn’t just impact our minds – it can have significant impacts on our bodies. To understand the impact of trauma, we first have to look at how the stress response system works.

The stress response system

The stress response system, also known as the fight or flight response, is activated when we experience trauma or stress. This response is mediated by the limbic system, which is in the center of our brains, and is responsible for regulating survival behaviors and emotional expression. 

The limbic system in the amygdala is connected to the automatic nervous system (ANS), signaling the ANS in the hypothalamus to prepare a flight or fight response when it evaluates a situation and determines a threat to our being. The ANS is comprised of two branches- the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which function in balance with each other: when one is activated, the other is suppressed. Following the stress signal, the SNS becomes activated, releasing epinephrine and norepinephrine, and corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) is released, which activates the pituitary gland to release adrenocortiotropic hormone. This helps our body mobilize for flight or fight by increasing respiration and heart rate to provide more oxygen, sending blood away from the skin and into muscles for quick movement, enlarging our pupils, and slowing down our digestion to divert the energy to other areas of the body. Once the traumatic incident is over and the flight or fight response is successful, the adrenal glands release cortisol, which halts the alarm reaction and the production of epinephrine and norepinephrine, helping restore our body to our usual state of homeostasis.

However, for those with PTSD, the ANS continues to be chronically aroused, even when the threat has passed. The body does not release enough cortisol to suppress the ANS. Our SNS is constantly working while the PNS is suppressed. The exact cause of the cortisol deficiency in those with PTSD is unknown. Traumatic events are not properly embedded or stored in our memory because our hippocampus is unable to store the event in relation to time or place while the ANS is active. This is why trauma survivors can be triggered experience flashbacks, where it feels as if they are re-experiencing parts or all of the traumatic incident. Although not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD, everyone who experiences trauma will have had their lives impacted significantly by the events and it is important to understand the impact in order to find solutions.

Impacts of trauma on the body

A traumatic event itself isn’t necessarily the trigger, it’s how our bodies uniquely respond to that trauma that can cause health problems. We all respond differently to and have different capacities for stressors.

One way in which trauma can impact our bodies is through somatization. Somatization refers to the manifestation of physical symptoms or illness in response to psychological distress. Common examples of somatization include chronic pain, gastrointestinal issues, and fatigue. Even though these symptoms may not be directly related to a physical injury or illness, they can be incredibly debilitating and difficult to manage.

Trauma can also impact our immune system, making us more susceptible to illness and disease. A study conducted on Holocaust survivors found that they were more likely to develop chronic illnesses like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. This is thought to be due, in part, to the lasting impact of trauma on the immune system. When the stress response system is activated, the body suppresses some aspects of the immune system, leaving us vulnerable to infection and disease.

How to heal from trauma

Processing traumatic incidents can be incredibly challenging, but it’s essential to healing from the physical and emotional impacts of trauma. One important aspect of processing trauma is learning how to regulate our emotions and manage our stress response. This can be done through techniques like meditation, deep breathing, and mindfulness practices. Finding a therapist or counselor to work through past trauma can also be incredibly helpful.

In addition to seeking professional help, it’s essential to engage in self-care practices that prioritize our physical and emotional well-being. This can include things like:

  • getting enough sleep
  • eating a balanced diet
  • getting regular exercise
  • engaging in activities that bring us joy and relaxation.

Prioritizing self-care may feel like a small step, but it’s an essential one in the healing process. It’s important to find activities that take care of your nervous system, so that your body is able to return to homeostasis and rest.

At WOC Therapy, our practitioners are here for you. If you’ve experienced a traumatic event or feel as if you have a hard time handling the stressors that come your way, seeing a therapist who can help you work through them can be helpful. Contact us to get started today!