Impacts of Emotional Trauma on the Body
By Dr. Kirsten West, ND, LAc, FABNO
Emotional trauma can significantly affect body – beyond what many consider when they think of mental health issues.
Mental distress and deep-set emotional patterns are an adaptation to trauma. Trauma can come in the form of “Big T,” such as abuse or war, or “little t,” such as poor attachment to a caregiver or not feeling seen, heard, or connected. We require safety and connections to move forward in life. When that does not exist, especially in the years we learn attachment, we experience trauma and adapt. Those adaptations stay with us for years and affect our relationships, mental, and physical health. All forms of trauma can have equally devastating impacts on our health if not effectively managed.
Whether or not a situation is recognized as trauma at the time, people find ways to adapt. The adaptations that may have served us well as a child or young adult can be a disservice as we move forward in life. When we change the view of mental illness to one of adaptation, we take away the shame of maladapted physiological responses. Trauma is more than mental; it is recorded in the body’s physiology. Once we adapt to a traumatic experience, the body holds those memories, which become well-traveled pathways and subsequent responses later in life.
Unfortunately, those responses, more often than not, no longer serve us and may hinder our growth, development, and health. A chronic stress response can equate to chronic disease. Simply put, the body feels distress and, therefore, unwell.
Becoming acutely aware of our inner world and our past is paramount. If depression, anxiety, and a generalized sense of distress or sensitivity to otherwise mild situations and life events are prevalent, it is important to look past momentary thought patterns and into the body to determine why. Traumas, either big or small, must be eradicated at the physiological level.
Health Impacts of Emotional Trauma
A chronic stress response will lead to chronic health issues. This physiological response can cause a rise in cortisol and adrenaline – our stress hormones. The hormones, if secreted acutely, are helpful. They can help us flee a situation and act accordingly. However, its long-term presence does a disservice and can lead to chronic issues, such as increased blood sugar and depressed immunity. If we do not learn to change our response to stress and respond favorably, the body senses that it is unwell. This leads to poor mental and physiological health, which can be seen with conditions such as depression, anxiety, heart disease, cancer, and autoimmunity.
Another major trauma adaptation that can be overlooked is addiction. Addiction is often related to the misuse of drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes, but it can go beyond that. Our relationship with food, exercise, and work may also mask deep-set traumas. Pay attention to these. When our relationship to any of these begins to counteract our physical or mental health, there is often a traumatic experience at its core.
Common Trauma and Correlating Conditions
In my practice, I have seen several conditions that are aligned with a specific trauma history. For example, autoimmunity is often associated with a history of abuse. The body learns to protect itself from the abuse, and in doing so, overdoes self-surveillance and begins attacking itself. We now know that autoimmune blood markers are elevated in those with a history of abuse, as opposed to those without that history, even before developing an autoimmune disease.
I personally think a large part of malignancy is attributable to a history of trauma. I have seen gynecological cancers in those with a history of sexual abuse and digestive cancers in those who never fully digested and enjoyed life. Throat cancer or cancer of the head and neck may come with a history of feeling unheard. The patterns are prevalent, and while correlation does not equal causation, getting to the root of the trauma is important. It is also important to remember that any diagnosis of cancer or a life-threatening illness is a trauma itself and is akin to PTSD. Trauma can cause more trauma.
While many people focus on talk therapy as a way to cope with or discover past trauma, it does not always work when trauma has resulted in maladapted physiological or emotional problems, which must be addressed at a cellular level. It is easy to focus on a physical malady rather than pulling back the onion to discover the root causes.
I have seen some of the best changes in my patients who utilize EMDR therapy, hypnosis, yoga, or other mind and body-based movements. EMDR uses rapid eye movements (those that are active in sleep) to help change the way we approach events.
EMDR is rooted in what sleep does for us, helping to re-analyze our day, which is imperative for memory and learning. If we can hone the brain waves active in the REM stage of sleep, we could make a lasting change in trauma response. This could re-program the brain and the subsequent physiological response.
Hypnosis also serves to change brain activity, and in so doing, changes adaptations to certain past events. When done with a skilled therapist, yoga and additional mind and body movement can also help reframe our adaptations and trauma response from a physiological level.
Emotional trauma comes in many forms and sizes, and it can be difficult to recognize. We must become aware of our inner terrain, our inner voice, and our inner child. This is where our truth lies and our capacity to heal is awakened. This begins with recognition and letting go of adaptations that no longer serve us. Trauma can be our greatest awaking if we learn how to see it.