In life, facing emotional trauma is something that everyone deals with. Whether it’s the unexpected death of a loved one, the onset of a debilitating illness, loss of a job, physical or mental abuse, or a natural disaster, we’ve all faced times of unexpected emotional trauma. But although these things are difficult to process on a mental and emotional level, they also impact the body physically. According to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, between 50-60% of all people will experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime.
When an individual faces a traumatic event, whether a one-time event or reoccurring trauma (as in the case of ongoing mental, emotional or physical abuse), the body responds by activating a stress response.
What happens during the stress response?
When a person faces a traumatic event, their HPA axis is activated. The HPA axis includes the hypothalamus, the pituitary glands, and the adrenal glands. When the trauma happens, the pituitary is prompted to stimulate the pituitary glands which secrete adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). The ACTH stimulates the adrenal glands to produce the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. When cortisol is released, it signals the liver to release glucose, raising blood sugar levels. This gives the body the necessary fuel to face the impending threat so that it can either fight it or run away.
Adrenaline decreases immune, digestive, and reproductive system function so that there is adequate energy to deal with the traumatic event. It also increases sweating, blood pressure, and heart rate.
When facing common everyday stressors, once the threat has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system takes charge and brings the body back in balance.
But the impact of trauma is far more severe than everyday stress because it rewires the brain, causing it to stay stuck in continuous stress response mode. When trauma causes the body to stay in an extended state of stress, it can take a toll on physical health.
Top ways trauma impacts the body
High blood sugar
The constant release of cortisol raises blood sugar levels. Cortisol suppresses insulin levels and can lead to poor blood sugar regulation causing insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and even obesity.
Insomnia is the most common sleep problem associated with trauma. The state of hyperarousal that comes with the body’s stress response can make it hard for some to fall asleep. They may also find themselves waking more frequently and struggling to get back to sleep if they do wake up during the night. A lack of restorative sleep can increase stress levels even more, creating a never-ending cycle.
When a person faces trauma, it is common for them to hold tension in their muscles without even being aware of it. People often hold the energy of the emotional trauma in their body, causing the muscles to be tight. This can lead to unexplained aches and pains as well.
Animals naturally shake after a traumatic event. As their body shakes, it allows them to shake off any energy from the traumatic event. Humans are designed to shake or tremble after a traumatic event as well. It is a signal from the brain that the danger is passed and that the stress response can shut off. It is a survival-based response, but many people have learned to bypass this response. Without releasing the trauma energy, people may experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This causes even more long-term physical and mental health problems.
All of the ways the body responds to trauma and being in a constant state of hyperarousal aren’t very comfortable. So many people opt to reach for alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, or food as a means to soothe themselves and to help them cope with the aftereffects of trauma. It allows them to feel a temporary state of euphoria or numbness so that they do not have to continue to feel the overwhelm of a chronic state of stress.
Unfortunately, any addiction is a poor coping mechanism for chronic stress and can lead to increased problems. Addiction can damage relationships, finances and threaten jobs. It can lead to serious health issues or in the case of drugs or alcohol can even lead to death. If you or a loved one is using addiction to cope with trauma, we encourage you to seek professional help to overcome the addiction. A trained addiction specialist can help you to find healthier ways to cope.
When dealing with extended periods of chronic stress, it is not uncommon for the hormones to become imbalanced. Stress impacts cortisol levels. But it can also impact the level of sex hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone as well. Imbalances of these hormones can disrupt the menstrual cycle in women and can contribute to fertility issues in both men and women.
After facing a trauma, one of the first things the body does is to lower immune system function. This allows more energy to be available to either face a threat or run from it. But an extended period of elevated stress following a trauma leads to poor immune system function. It can open people to being more susceptible to viruses and bacterial infections.
Problems resolving health issues
Have you ever tried to lose weight and no matter what you did the scale just wouldn’t budge? Maybe you’ve been trying to heal a nagging health issue. And you have seemingly tried everything, but just can seem to find an answer. FDN practitioners see many clients who are struggling to resolve health issues, no matter what they’ve tried. This can actually be a result of experiencing trauma. That emotional energy becomes trapped in the body. It doesn’t matter how you eat or what kind of exercise you do. It doesn’t even matter how many supplements you take. Without releasing that trauma, you will continue to struggle with unresolved health issues.
There is good news! There are things that can be done to help the body recover from the impacts of trauma. Health can be restored, and you do not need to continue to struggle. The program at FDNthrive may be able to help. Contact us to see if we are the right match for you!