How Trauma Is Stored in the Body
Trauma can be tricky: sometimes it can look like a frightening moment from your childhood that gets stuck in your subconscious, lurking like a sea monster just beneath a serene surface. It can also present as a horrifying event that replays as an unshakeable memory. Trauma can cling to us like an odious troll, a heavy monster on a never-ending piggyback ride everywhere we go.
Sometimes trauma can go beyond the psychological damage and wear on our physical health. Trauma can change our cellular structure and brain chemistry over time, leading to illnesses, immune system deficiencies, possibly even life-threatening diseases, and a shorter life span.
This blog post will look at how trauma is stored in the body, the different types of trauma, and how to treat trauma.
What is trauma?
The American Psychological Association defines trauma as: “Any disturbing experience that results in significant fear, helplessness, dissociation, confusion, or other disruptive feelings intense enough to have a long-lasting negative effect on a person’s attitudes, behavior, and other aspects of functioning.”¹
Trauma can come from a violent event or an accident like a car crash or a natural disaster. It can manifest from the prolonged suffering that comes with abuse, neglect, a grave illness, or domestic violence. Trauma can also stem from strained living conditions, like war, famine, or profound hardship. Trauma can shake a person's trust in safety and stability, and unaddressed triggers can keep us stuck in a trauma response.
Trauma is not just what happens to us, but what doesn't happen to us. It includes missed opportunities in childhood, like an absentee parent or lack of emotional support, and even losses like miscarriage or losing a parent.
What are the three types of trauma?
There are three main types of trauma: acute, chronic, and complex.
Acute trauma stems from a single event, such as a violent attack, an accident, or the death of a loved one.
Chronic trauma is generated by a string of traumatic incidents that are repeated over time. This could be a situation like growing up in an abusive household, suffering ongoing bullying, or enduring repeated physical assaults. The difference between acute trauma and chronic trauma is that chronic trauma is repetitive.
Complex trauma stems from multiple varied distressing events endured over time or even a lifetime. These events usually result from negative experiences within interpersonal relationships that aren't necessarily related. People who experience complex trauma may have trouble regulating their emotions and may experience shame, guilt, and even disassociation.
Survivors of childhood abuse often experience complex trauma linked to betrayal from a caregiver who directly or indirectly caused harm. Complex trauma can also extend to a refugee who suffers hardship, dislocation, and violence over an extended period.² It can even include periods of extended stress, like burnout from a harmful work environment.
How is trauma held in the body?
Studies have shown that past trauma, particularly trauma suffered in childhood, might contribute to physical ailments even years after the initial event. One study in the Psychological Journal for the American Psychological Association determined that exposure to violence in childhood can cause more rapid biological aging.³ ⁴
With faster biological aging comes an increased risk for disease and possibly even a shortened lifespan. Dr. Katie A. McLaughlin, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Harvard, noted in a study, "Exposure to adversity in childhood is a powerful predictor of health outcomes later in life—not only mental health outcomes like depression and anxiety, but also physical health outcomes like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer." ⁴
How can adverse childhood experiences affect your health as an adult?
Traumatic events that happen to children are referred to as Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs. A study conducted by Kaiser Health in the late-90s⁵ helped us understand the adverse childhood experiences of 17,000 participants. This study asked several questions about individuals' experiences growing up: whether they'd endured sexual or physical abuse, if they experienced neglect, if they had mothers in abusive relationships, and other related questions. Participants were assigned a point for every type of trauma they experienced as children.
The researchers found that there was a correlation between people who dealt with trauma and their physical health. The higher the number of ACE points, the higher the likelihood that people were dealing with physical health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and auto-immune-related illness like arthritis and fibromyalgia.⁵
The researchers were able to tie the data to the health records for the survey participants, and the numbers were startling, especially for people with four or more traumatic events in their history. That group had cancer at a rate that was 190% higher than the population that had not experienced trauma. The trauma group participants had heart disease at a rate that was 240% higher than those with no reported trauma.
Trauma's impact on mental health is devastating: those who experienced trauma had a 1030% higher rate of drug abuse and a 1120% higher rate of suicide attempts.⁵
According to the CDC, 61% of the population experienced at least one type of childhood trauma, and 1 in 6 people experienced four or more types of trauma. The group with six or more ACEs in their lifetime had an average lifespan that was 20 years shorter.⁶
How does trauma manifest in the body?
Trauma can manifest as physical problems in the body because of the ways our body works to withstand traumatic events. Our bodies weren't meant to endure the amount of pressure on the nervous system that stems from unrelenting trauma.
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is the driver of the endocrine stress response, is designed to protect us in an emergency by releasing hormones that ready the body and support it throughout and after the fight or flight response. This is helpful if you must jump out of the way of a car blowing through a crosswalk, but it's detrimental when the hormones are always pumping through your system in response to hypervigilance caused by ongoing trauma.
The excess of stress hormones can begin to wear on the body in ways that can have lasting adverse effects. The extra adrenaline from stress can cause heart damage that can lead to heart attacks or strokes. Excess cortisol can cause weight gain and inflammation, leading to health problems such as diabetes, digestive issues, and heart disease.
In an article for the Cleveland Clinic, Psychologist Kate Eshleman, notes, "The body responds to emotional stress in much the same way it responds to physical stress." ⁷ Inflammation is caused by an excess of stress hormones that can impact the body with frequent heightened arousal. As a result, the body creates an excess of proteins that can cause inflammation in the brain, similar to what happens in a concussion.
What is the best type of therapy for trauma?
While trauma may seem overwhelming to heal, trauma's mental and physical damage can be reversed or improved with treatment. There are evidence-based methods with proven results that therapists can use to help patients work through past traumas, including Somatic Experiencing and Dialectical Behavior Therapy. The therapist you work with will guide you through various options that best fit your particular situation.
What are some things besides therapy that can help with trauma?
It's crucial to find a therapist you trust to work with you in dealing with your past trauma, but there are things you can do on your own to complement your treatment:
- Be present in the here and now – Yoga, meditation, mindfulness, and breathing exercises can provide some relief to people dealing with trauma and mental health challenges.
- Talk it out – Just having a friend or someone you trust to confide in can be helpful. Even if you don't want to talk about sensitive topics, you can try to surround yourself with positive people and bring you peace, calm, and happiness.
- Take care of your body – Eat healthy, nourishing foods like fresh fruits and vegetables and whole, unprocessed foods. Make it a point to add some physical activity to your day every day. It doesn't have to be going to the gym – walk the dog, dance while you clean the kitchen, do some gardening, go for a bike ride, walk around the block, and focus on the positive feelings you can get from moving.
- Spend time doing something you enjoy – Do something creative, sing, hang out with someone you love, get out in nature. Try to bring some beauty, joy, or happiness into your life every day: pick a bouquet for your table, leave a kind note for yourself on the bathroom mirror, forgive yourself for a mistake.
- Practice gratitude and focus on what you have – It can be hard not to go back to the past and think of how your life could have been different if you hadn't experienced so much pain, but try to maintain a focus on what you have in your life that is positive. Try to think of at least one thing you are grateful for every day.
With the ideas listed above, you can get started on the path to recovering from trauma right now, but it's imperative to seek help from a professional and have that support at the core of your recovery plan.
Trauma-Informed Care at All Points North Lodge
At All Points North Lodge, our doctors and therapists are experts in trauma-informed care. With a custom approach to healing, we can help you unravel whatever trauma is binding you to your past, and from there, get you moving forward into a life you love.
To learn more about how our team of caring clinicians can help create a custom treatment plan, reach out to one of our Contact Center team members at 855.235.9792 or via LiveChat. We're ready and waiting to help you find your way forward.
- "APA Dictionary of Psychology: Trauma." APA Dictionary of Psychology, American Psychological Association, https://dictionary.apa.org/trauma.
- Allarakha, Shaziya, MD. "What Are the 3 Types of Trauma?" MedicineNet, February 8, 2021, https://www.medicinenet.com/what_are_the_3_types_of_trauma/article.htm
- "Study: Experiencing Childhood Trauma Makes Body and Brain Age Faster". American Psychological Association, Press Release, August 3, 2020, https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2020/08/experiencing-childhood-trauma
- Colich, N. L., Rosen, M. L., Williams, E. S., & McLaughlin, K. A. (2020). Biological aging in childhood and adolescence following experiences of threat and deprivation: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 146(9), 721–764. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000270
- Felitti, Vincent J., et al. "Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults." American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 1 May 1998.
- "Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Preventing Early Trauma to Improve Adult Health". Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC Vital Signs, Centers for Disease Control, https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/aces/pdf/vs-1105-aces-H.pdf
- "Childhood Trauma's Lasting Effects on Mental and Physical Health." HealthEssentials, Cleveland Clinic, 28 Apr. 2020, https://health.clevelandclinic.org/childhood-traumas-lasting-effects-on-mental-and-physical-health/.
- Dong M, Giles WH, Felitti VJ, Dube SR, Williams JE, Chapman DP, Anda RF. Insights into causal pathways for ischemic heart disease: adverse childhood experiences study. Circulation. 2004 Sep 28;110(13):1761-6. doi: 10.1161/01.CIR.0000143074.54995.7F. Epub 2004 Sep 20. PMID: 15381652.
- Khoddam, Rubin, Ph.D. "How Trauma Affects the Body". Psychology Today, March 3, 2021, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-addiction-connection/202103/how-trauma-affects-the-body
- "Understanding the Stress Response". Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, July 6, 2020, https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
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