Updated: Feb 17, 2022
Author: Carol Yan
Firstly, what is trauma?
A traumatic experience can range from your ball being stolen away on the playground when you were 3 years old all the way to having a gun pointed at your head, and everything in between. Emotional and psychological trauma is the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter your sense of security, leaving you feeling helpless and always on edge (fight, flight mode). It can leave you struggling with challenging emotions, memories, and anxiety that seems impossible to navigate. It can also leave you feeling numb, disconnected, and unable to trust other people or some environments.
It’s not the objective circumstances that determine whether an event is traumatic, but your subjective emotional experience of the event.
Trauma isn't something that has to be one specific event, either. There's much more appreciation these days for micro-traumas - like chronic, more mildly traumatic experiences - that cumulate over many years and can amount to the same experience as one macro trauma.
Emotional trauma can hit even the most grounded among us with incredible power. When it comes to actual injuries and wounds, they are normally outwardly quantifiable and can prompt injury-related actual agony, at the same time, complex emotional trauma and PTSD can likewise profoundly affect the body.
Emotional trauma can cause enduring mind changes that may prompt for dependence, discouragement, and a large group of different symptoms (anxiety, depression etc.) that can have a tight grip on lives whenever left unprocessed. At the points when life stressors do happen, it can take a lot of effort to 'get over' the recollections, the feelings, and the sensation of simply not having the option to have a sense of safety.
“Emotional trauma isn’t simply “in your mind”. It leaves a genuine, actual engraving on your body, shaking your memory stockpiling measures and changing your mind.” _ Ben Lesser
Which then leads us to - Why Emotional Trauma may occur?
The Polyvagal Theory proposes that our sensory systems have developed so we can feel things like closeness and wellbeing around others - a way to know when we are 'socially safe'. However, on the off chance that we recognise danger/threat (perceived or real), the other, more primitive pieces of our sensory system kick in – like the 'survival' sensory system, which controls our 'fight or flight' reaction, and the parasympathetic sensory system, which makes us shut down and conserve energy.
Trauma can cause our memory processing system to malfunction: the memory system fails, so the traumatic memory isn’t logged and stored properly. Rather, a simpler method kicks into gear of recording signals and encoding traumatic memories as pictures or body sensations - entrapped in the memory in bits and pieces (fragments). These malicious fragments can manifest as symptoms - anxiety, severe stress responses, depression.
So, how do our bodies react to threat & danger?
To better understand why the negative effects of trauma can persist over time and why it may potentially be physically 'stored', let's take a look at what's happening in the body during and after a traumatic experience.
The go-to response we often have to trauma is fight or flight - the heart beats faster, blood pressure goes up, big muscles get tense and ready to run or fight, digestion slows down.
The other reaction we can have, often when the trauma is overwhelming and inescapable, as might be the case with rape or an ongoing abusive relationship, is to freeze, or go into a kind of detached state.
During these responses, the autonomic nervous system kicks into gear, areas of the brain responsible for fear, anger, and emotion, particularly the amygdala, become much more active. While areas in the frontal cortex, responsible for self-awareness, thoughtful problem-solving & decision-making as well as logic & reason, become less active.
In some cases, a traumatic event doesn't cause prolonged symptoms. When allowed the capacity for resolution of a traumatic event, the anxiety and recollections of the event diminish significantly or go away. This can look like experiencing that initial stress response and acknowledging that you are shaken up due to an experience and allowing yourself patience and time to process the experience.
However, in other cases - one can get stuck in these fight, flight, or freeze responses - even when they're not consciously thinking about the traumatic event. When these traumatic thoughts and memories remain unspeakable or unthinkable for too long, they often impede our brain's natural process of recovery after trauma. They become 'stuck points' or 'capsules' that inhibit the mental reintegration that is needed for healing to occur. This can then prolong the fight, flight, or freeze response and have very real physical consequences.
So in this way, YES, physical manifestations of trauma very much exist in our bodies - even when we may not be consciously thinking about the actual trauma.
“There isn't just one aspect to our memory of trauma. There's a sort of linear, factual aspect to it, but when we experience trauma, we also experience it in our body.”
“So I think there are two aspects of memory, and the one that's in the body that people tend to store gets less attention."
_ Jill Blakeway