How the Body Reacts to Psychological Trauma

How the Body Reacts to Psychological Trauma | Dr. Ali Ghahary

Trauma can result from a number of things, including both physical and mental abuse, natural disasters, terrorism, war, and even death. Physical abuse is defined as the infliction of physical pain onto another (with or without the use of objects or weapons, and both domestic or non-domestic violence) that results in severe physical or emotional harm, and can include hitting, grabbing, kicking, punching, sexual contact that is unwanted or coercive, and sexual exploitation. Emotional abuse is defined as the act of commission against another individual that results in them experiencing a wide range of mental disturbances, and can include verbal abuse, as well as repeated demands and/or expectations, emotional neglect, social deprivation, as well as behaviour that is meant to intimidate, frighten, threaten, blame, or manipulate. Bullying also falls under the category of emotional abuse – and can also sometimes lead to physical abuse. It’s also possible to develop trauma as a result of being witness to a traumatic event – such as being in a war or being a victim of or witness to a motor vehicle accident. Unintentional illness of oneself or someone else, as well as the sudden death of a friend or family member can also be considered traumatic.

Psychological trauma isn’t something that everyone experiences, but those who have know how debilitating it can be. Our minds and bodies often aren’t equipped enough to deal with traumatic events, especially if they are sudden. This inability to cope can cause someone who’s recently gone through a traumatic experience to shut down emotionally (often described as feeling numb) in the face of overwhelming sorrow. Because traumatic events tend to replay over and over again in our minds, we put this block in place in effort to avoid thinking about it or discussing it. This is just one of the many ways in which the body reacts to psychological trauma and is known as avoidance. The body also has other stages of dealing with trauma, such as reliving the traumatic event, emotional reactions, altered perceptions, and hyperactive nervous system.

Along with shutting down emotionally, when someone responds to trauma through avoidance, they try not to think about what happened by finding ways to distract themselves. It’s also not uncommon to avoid things or places related to the traumatic event. For example, certain songs or music might remind you of the event, specific locations, or even being around certain people and crowds. Alternatively, rather than doing everything in their power to avoid thinking about the traumatic event, people may also relive it. Sometimes this is intentional, but more often than not one may have nightmares following a traumatic event, or through flashbacks in which the traumatic event is vividly visualized. The mind also goes through various emotional reactions as a response to trauma. These emotional reactions include everything from fear and anxiety, anger, sadness, and even guilt. It’s also not uncommon to have a different view of the world (and even of yourself) following a traumatic event. You might blame yourself for what happened, you may feel weak or inadequate, or you can have trouble trusting others. When the nervous system is hyperactive, you may feel as though you constantly have to be on guard. For example, you might not think that the world is a safe place and find yourself waiting for the next bad thing to happen. You may also be more easily startled or have trouble sleeping. If your psychological trauma was the result of a sexual assault, you may also find it difficult to feel close to or be intimate with your partner. These are all post-traumatic reactions and part of a condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD.) The body can also react to trauma through physical symptoms. You may develop stomach aches, headaches, sweat, feel dizzy, nauseous, or vomit.

In order to allow yourself to deal with the trauma, it’s important to realize that the feelings you’re experiencing are completely valid and not inferior in any way. Secondly, allow yourself time to process what you’ve gone through. This might mean having to take some time off work or school, and only go back when you are feeling ready to do so. It can sometimes help to build up a return to school and/or work slowly. For example, if your employer or school will allow, try just a few hours at a time. Doing too much too soon may only make you feel overwhelmed and re-trigger those emotional responses. You also don’t have to face trauma alone. While certain events can be difficult to talk about, having a good support system around you is critical. This can be a person or people of your choice, such as friends or family members, or even by attending a support group of some kind. People will also often use drugs and/or alcohol as a coping mechanism, but you need to find healthier ways. If you are having trouble dealing with psychological trauma of any kind, your family physician can be a good place to start as he or she will be able to point you in the right direction – whether it be prescribing medication to help you sleep, referring you to a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist, or recommending another type of therapy.

Furthermore, if you know someone who has recently gone through a traumatic event, offer them support. However, don’t take it personally if they decide that they want to be left alone, and don’t judge them for their emotional reactions, such as sadness or anger, as these are all normal responses to trauma.