The topic of trauma is a heavy one and is often skirted due to its level of vulnerability and exposure by the traumatized person. It’s most common to hear people assume they’ve never experienced trauma. Well, I’m here to tell you that you’re not likely correct. It’s common to think that trauma is an acute, one-time experience like fighting a war or being in a car accident. While those are examples of traumatic events, those instances only clip the tip of the iceberg. Trauma can also be chronic…that is, a deeply negative experience that impacts an individual on a repeated basis. To aid in furthering your understanding of trauma, I want to share with you the clinical definition, as it is written in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition: An “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence”. Although it is an anxiety disorder, due to the diagnosis and treatment being so complex, trauma now has its own section in the DSM5, calling it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD–a trauma and stress-induced disorder). So is trauma a real thing? Absolutely.
Trauma can be experienced under 3 contexts: first-hand exposure, second-hand exposure by witnessing a traumatic event, and trauma by proxy…being close to a family member or loved one who is experiencing or has experienced trauma. There isn’t one variety of trauma that trumps another. The point is, it is highly likely you’ve experienced some sort of trauma along the way, and if it goes unaddressed, it festers in your body and controls body systems and wellness. What does that look like? What does that feel like? I’m going to give you some insight into how trauma lives in the physical body.
Trauma in the Body
Since birth, humans are wired for physical contact and interpersonal connection. Homeostasis is supposed to be the norm, however, that is not where our systems reside if we are in a chronic fight-or-flight mode. The threat of death or danger throws our autonomic nervous system into hyper-arousal because that’s what it’s designed to do, however, it’s not supposed to stay in that state. If trauma goes untreated and unreleased, somatic disturbances compile; for some, before the emotional symptoms do. Joint pain, stiff muscles, sensory disturbances, tension headaches, gastrointestinal irregularity, high blood pressure, inflammation (ie. arthritis); and for some, low immunity.
It is common for people to seek primary care for these somatic disturbances, only to discover there are no ailments. That is not saying these symptoms are made up, it’s saying that medical treatment is only the bandaid with a weak adhesive. No judgment is being directed at those who seek medical diagnosis; it seems more sensible to seek help for somatic symptoms at a provider that treats physical ailments versus seeking mental and behavioral help to treat somatic symptoms. It’s not mainstream (in Western medicine) to consider the two related, although thankfully, the news is getting out.
Trauma-related Somatic Symptoms
A trauma response can cause a person to hold their bodies in a certain way–rigid, clenched, hunched over, guarded with arms crossed, body language, and facial expressions; protecting themselves from perceived threats like imprinted memories. The long-term engagement of the musculoskeletal system decreases the body’s adequate recovery time and; when you think about how much harder your body is working to keep you in this “guarded” state, energy is constantly depleting while the sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive. Over time, the body is trained to remain in survival mode, leading to joint, muscular, and fascial tension and chronic fatigue.
Digestion is highly impacted by untreated trauma. The brain is connected to the gastrointestinal tract (often noted as “the second brain”), via the pneumogastric nerve, and the two systems simultaneously communicate; so when one is off-kilter, the entire body suffers the consequences. Irritable Bowel Syndrome is something many complain of, but the association between IBS and trauma isn’t the go-to for Western medical practitioners. There’s usually a pill, colonoscopy, or upper GI scope. No gastro doc says, “So tell me about your trauma!” and then refers you out for therapeutic/psychiatric care. That’s a healthcare pipedream!
Unexplained Somatic Sensations
You may feel like your body has been hijacked at times. All 5 senses can be triggered out of nowhere. A scent, tone of voice from an authority figure, a song, unwelcomed touch (even if it’s accidental and harmless), the taste of a certain food or drink, the sight of a stranger or familiar face…a sensation may come over you that is out of context that you cannot rationalize. To the people around you, the circumstance is completely benign, but to the survivor, there is a sense of imminent danger. Sudden rage, upset stomach, heart palpitations, tensed shoulders, visceral discomfort, shallow breathing, clenched jaw, and the desperate need to flee, fight, or freeze. There’s a good chance you’re unconsciously reliving a fragmentation of a traumatic experience.
It’s experiences like these that make us question our health, both medically and/or psychologically. It can be an overwhelming out-of-control feeling taking place in your own body, where we all so desperately want to feel at home. A survivor may feel as if they’ve lost themselves but they can’t pinpoint the culprit. Trauma is not orderly or polite. It does not ask to enter for a visit. Trauma can be stored in your body and insidiously expose itself in the most unwanted, untimely ways. All our body is trying to do is protect itself from a traumatic reoccurrence.
So far what I’ve shared is a snippet of a topic that is vast and empirically researched. Body symptoms and sensations are a major component of recognizing how trauma shows up somatically. I haven’t even tapped into how the mind and behavior are impacted (keep an eye out for Part 2). It wouldn’t be kind of me to list the problems without providing direction toward the solution…taking your power back. Here are some ways to get started on your journey toward trauma relief:
- Therapy. Find a therapist who specializes in trauma-informed care. EMDR is a highly-researched therapy modality that has proven to be effective. Typically a therapist will have that skill listed in their credentials. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), Exposure Therapy, and sometimes pharmacotherapy are commonly used treatments.
- Bodywork. I’m referring to trauma-informed massage, reiki, craniosacral massage, and reflexology. Dayton has some well-trained bodyworkers who specialize in these modalities such as Marianne Fink or Kate Thomas. Bodywork can be extremely healing and for most, very relaxing.
- Breath Therapy. Breath therapy can be extremely powerful, and its effectiveness is often surprising. In fact, coming soon, Ignite Yoga will have its very own therapeutic breath coach, Lindsay Dalton. She is one of only a few therapeutic breathwork coaches in Dayton, OH. To supplement this modality, there are countless breath practices you can do at home, as long as they are for calming the nervous system and not upregulating the sympathetic nervous system, as some forms do for morning practices. If you want an easily-digestible list of home breath practices, check out our recent blog that walks you through the steps to 3 simple breath practices and the benefits of each.
- Yoga. There’s no way I was going to leave this one out! Moving the body in gentle ways, like Ignite’s Zen class, is a wonderful way to access the parasympathetic nervous system, which is essential to healing, recovery, and rest. If you are feeling like you need a practice specifically tailored to trauma-informed care, Ignite’s Anna Furderer is trained in providing these services. Disclosure: yoga, including trauma-informed yoga, is not therapy, nor is it a substitute for therapy. It is simply a supplement to healing self-care through body movement.
When it comes to trauma, this is not the time to play the tough guy/gal. Trauma can wreak havoc on all the body systems, and the earlier you tackle trauma, the earlier you get to heal and return to yourSELF. Beginning the process can seem daunting and overwhelming, however, there is a beautiful community of resilient, courageous souls out there who have walked the walk, and are more than willing to support others through their experience, strength, and hope. Stay tuned for Part 2, where I discuss how trauma shows up in emotions and behavior.