How Trauma is Stored in the Body
Our brains are astonishingly fast and effective. It’s composed of about 100 billion neurons, and this complex matrix encodes and stores your memories and experiences, which essentially make you, you. When our brains are working optimally, they zip out between 18 and 640 trillion electrical impulses per second!
Your brain is the greatest supercomputer on earth, and like computers, they are vulnerable to damage. A virus can wreak havoc on your computer, and a shock or traumatic event can wreak havoc on your brain.
And trauma isn’t just “in your head”. Trauma leaves a lasting imprint on your body. It disrupts your memory storage processes and changes the way your brain works.
Trauma left untreated can have a big impact on your future health. Trauma can lead to physical and emotional distress, which can lead to more serious health conditions, such as heart attack, stroke, obesity, diabetes, and cancer.1
A computer that has more than one virus will have even more glitches, and the same thing goes for multiple traumas. The more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) a person has had, the more “glitches” are likely to occur later in life.2
Computer viruses are invisible until the computer starts acting up, and trauma survivors can appear healthy and functional until their body’s defenses weaken enough that physical ailments begin to manifest.
Let’s look at how stress and trauma change our brains and bodies, and what the long-term effects may be.
When Our Brains Experience a Shock
Bessel van der Kolk wrote: “Trauma comes back as a reaction, not a memory”.3 This is because trauma literally causes malfunctions in our declarative explicit memory system. Traumatic memories are not stored properly in our brains.
Instead, our brains resort to a simpler method of recording the event, which consists of pictures or bodily sensations; the memory of the shock or trauma is split into fragments.
Those fragments can act like shrapnel, which may hinder the brain’s natural recovery process. Particularly troubling fragments will manifest as symptoms commonly associated with post-traumatic stress, which can increase the risks of becoming physically ill.
If you’ve ever been in a car accident, severely injured yourself, or even witnessed such an incident, you can probably relate to this. Maybe you don’t remember the exact chain of events that occurred, but you can recall certain sounds, smells, or vivid flashes or images from that day.
You may remember exactly what song was on the radio, but not what you were wearing. You may remember the sound of the police officer’s voice or his face, but have no recollection of him showing up.
This is typical of traumatic events, and this is why “…trauma returns as a reaction”. The survivor of a severe car accident might not remember the accident in detail but may feel physically averse to getting back into a car. Their heart rate goes up, their palms sweat, and they may feel sick to their stomach. These are all physical reactions to previous trauma. The body thinks it is still in danger.
Stressful situations – whether it’s a car accident or a looming work deadline – can trigger a cascade of stress hormones that lead to physiological changes. Your heart pounds, your breathing quickens, your muscles tense up, and you may feel beads of sweat appear.
This is the “fight-or-flight” response. It is a survival mechanism forged from evolution, and it’s meant to protect mammals from life-threatening situations. Your body is gearing up to either flee the scene or protect itself where it stands.
The problem is, our bodies can overreact and go into fight-or-flight mode even when it’s not in any significant danger, such as during traffic jams, work stress, or family problems.
Someone who has experienced trauma is especially prone to the fight-or-flight response. For most people, the sound of an ambulance coming up behind us on the road is a signal to pull over to the right in order to let it pass.
For someone who has been in a car accident (or has unresolved trauma of any sort, really) that sound may put them on the verge of a panic attack, physiologically.
Here is a very simple and generalized overview of what happens during fight-or-flight:
Veterans, survivors of childhood abuse, people living with domestic violence – there are too many scenarios to list – but people who have experienced severe or prolonged trauma may live in fight-or-flight mode for months, years, or even decades.
Physical indications of fight-or-flight mode include
Imagine your body going through this repeatedly, for years and years. Of course, it’s going to have an impact on your physical health and wellness. How could it not?
A Bit About Cortisol
One of the hormones that gets pumped out during times of stress is cortisol, the “stress hormone”. Cortisol is great when you need it; it energizes us through stressful situations and keeps us poised and alert when we’re in danger.
However, cortisol also shuts down the immune system. In evolutionary terms, this makes perfect sense. Our bodies shut down all the unnecessary systems so that they can use all their resources to fight the danger. If it doesn’t have to do with fighting or fleeing, we don’t need it, and it shuts down.
Therefore, when we are continuously stressed, our immune defenses are weakened. This can lead to infections, autoimmune diseases, heart and blood vessel diseases, and cancer. Constant bursts of adrenaline can harm blood vessels, raise blood pressure, and increase the risk of heart disease. 4
When we’re chronically stressed, (such as with PTSD), the brain is persistently prepared for a physical fight. Cortisol tells our bodies to save as much energy as possible for that fight, so it increases our appetite and stores energy which can lead to weight gain.
Cortisol also affects the hippocampus, the part of our brain crucial to memorizing and learning. Chronic stress leads to difficulties in learning and concentration, as well as the regulation of emotions.
Our bodies are incredible machines, and our brains are supercomputers. But they were not designed to be in a constant state of fight-or-flight, or even high anxiety. Eventually, we will start to break down; emotionally, mentally, and physically.
What are the Symptoms of Long-Term Stress?
Small doses of stress are good. They prompt us to finish our work assignments on time, get out of the way of the oncoming ambulance, and grab our kid before she rushes into oncoming traffic.
Long-term stress, however, such as for those who live with PTSD or unresolved trauma, can affect every aspect of your life; your emotions, behaviors, thinking ability, and of course, your physical health.
Physical symptoms of stress include:
This isn’t an exhaustive list, nor does it go into the mental, emotional, or behavioral symptoms of stress.
Perhaps you or someone you love has chronic aches and pains, constant colds or illnesses, stomach issues, sleep issues – and yet a medical doctor can’t seem to find a single thing wrong. This happens a lot. It is often caused by stress, unresolved trauma, or PTSD.
Let us now look at how we can use our bodies to heal our bodies.
Releasing Trauma from the Body
Here’s the really important thing to understand about trauma in the body: Your body can’t tell the difference between physical and emotional danger.
When you’re faced with a fight-or-flight situation, whether it’s emotional or physical, the primal part of your brain will always tell your body that the danger is physical. This is why we have physical reactions to highly charged situations.
This can be very frustrating when trying to heal from trauma, but be gentle with yourself and remember that your body is actually doing its job; protecting you. But if you’re no longer in danger, and your body thinks it is, it may be helpful to work on recalibrating that very effective, yet sometimes overzealous, built-in alarm system.
Therapy is a great tool, and many people who have experienced trauma benefit greatly from various types of talk and behavioral therapy. It is a crucial aspect of healing for many, and can literally be life-saving. If you or someone you care for are feeling overwhelmed, depressed, or suicidal, please reach out for professional mental health care right away.
Somatic Therapy, done with a trained specialist, is specifically geared towards helping the client reconnect with their bodies following trauma.6
If you are not in a crisis or immediate danger, and you’re open to trying some simple exercises meant to release stress and trauma, here are some simple suggestions to start your journey.
Run water over your hands. Start with cold water and slowly warm it up. Feel the sensations from your wrists to your nails. Notice the temperature changes, and how that changes the experience. Do this until you feel calmer.
Move your body in ways that feel comfortable to you. Be silly with it. Shake out your hands and arms. Jiggle your belly. Twirl around. Jog in place, or do jumping jacks. Focus on how this feels in your body. Start with your feet and move up until you’ve moved everything. Make note of what feels good.
Focus on your breath. Inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 3 seconds, then exhale for 4 seconds. Do this until you start to feel calmer.
Tense and relax different parts of your body. Start with your feet, then your legs, clench your bottom, and squeeze your arms to your chest; do one body part at a time and notice the difference before and after you tense and relax.
Play the alphabet game. Pick a category, like U.S. Cities, or foods, and go through the alphabet naming 3 cities that start with that letter. Don’t switch letters until you’ve thought of 3 (or 4, or 5).
These may seem silly, but it might surprise you how helpful they are in returning your focus to the present moment and reconnecting with your body. 7
Yoga consists of three main components: breathing (pranayama), postures (asanas), and mindfulness meditation. If you’ve ever practiced yoga, then you know that it is based on the idea of body awareness, and opening yourself up to the nature of your current experience, staying in the present moment.
A continuing practice can have incredible results on your mental health, with the bonus of improving your physical health as well, which also improves your mental health. It’s an upward spiral.
There are trauma-informed yoga classes, which essentially help you to move that stagnant trauma energy through your nervous system and out of your body.8
There is no one-size-fits-all cure for trauma, unfortunately. If you or a loved one have experienced trauma, either recently or in the past, you are not alone. Up to 80% of the population has experienced some sort of trauma in their lives, whether it’s childhood abuse, violent attacks, or accidents, and every single person experiences and processes trauma in their own way.
If you feel that you are carrying trauma in your body, and are ready to start healing, please reach out to someone as soon as possible. You don’t have to travel this road alone, and in fact, that may be impossible. Trauma is complex, and so is your brain and body. Get support as soon as you can. You deserve to heal.