How Does Trauma Impact the Body?  

Roughly 70% of American adults have experienced a traumatic event in their lifetimes.  

Trauma is both what happens to a person and how they react to it. Traumatic experiences usually involve a threat to one’s physical and/or emotional wellbeing, or it can come after a serious loss.  

The effects of trauma on the body vary from person to person, but treatment methods are available.  

What are the main types of trauma that cause emotional and psychological trauma?

There’s a difference between the trauma experienced in a hurricane, for example, and the trauma that comes from interpersonal violence.  

There’s also a difference between a one-time stressful event – known as acute trauma – and chronic or complex trauma.  

Acute trauma: Acute trauma typically stems from an accident, injury, or one-time violent attack, especially one that is unexpected.  

Chronic trauma: Ongoing, relentless stress can result in chronic trauma. Examples include fighting a life-threatening illness or experiencing traumatic events that happen repeatedly, such as bullying or domestic violence.  

Complex trauma: This usually refers to traumatic experiences in early childhood, like abuse or neglect.  

How does trauma impact us physically?

The mental effects of trauma can lead to exhaustion, confusion, sadness, anxiety, agitation, dissociation, confusion, flashbacks, panic attacks and more. It can cognitively and emotionally change the way we view ourselves and the world around us. It can also manifest itself in physical ways.  

Any event or series of events that causes severe fear, panic and helplessness can lead to physiological responses triggered by our bodies as a method of adapting.  

When many of us feel threatened, our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems spring into action. These responses are typically uncontrollable, because they are determined by our genes, our coping mechanisms, and the way our brains regulate.  

The sympathetic nervous system activates our fight of flight response during a threat or perceived danger. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for restoring a state of calm to the body, so it typically causes us to shut down and conserve energy.  

When the body works overtime like this, it can make some people more vulnerable to developing physical health problems.  

Physical symptoms that stem from trauma can include:  

  • Aches and pains  
  • Headaches  
  • Muscle tension  
  • Racing heartbeat 
  • Upset stomach  

Lasting trauma can have a lasting impact on a person’s physical health problems, as well. Trauma survivors are about three times more likely to deal with chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic pain, fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome.  

Endocrine and immune problems can also be triggered by trauma, which can include:  

  • Chronic autoimmune illnesses,  
  • Diabetes 
  • Heart disease 
  • Rheumatoid arthritis  
  • Stroke 
  • Type II diabetes  

What can I do to protect my body from trauma?

Lean on others Many experts believe that communicating with friends and family can gradually help you get back to feeling safe. Isolating yourself and avoiding discussions are counterproductive to a person dealing with – and eventually overcoming – intense feelings of trauma.  

Adjust your lifestyle: A healthy diet, regular exercise and adequate sleep is a recipe for strong physical and mental health, and the same is true for people attempting to heal from trauma. On the exercise side of the equation, moving your body and learning to feel safe in your body again can help to free it from some of the lasting effects of trauma. Yoga, meditation, dancing, and even martial arts are potentially helpful options.  

Therapy: Trauma therapy – specifically cognitive processing therapy (CPT) and prolonged exposure therapy – are evidence-based treatments to help those dealing with trauma and those with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  

CPT typically entails 12 psychotherapy sessions. It is meant to teach you how to evaluate and change the upsetting thoughts you have had since your trauma, and eventually replace them with positive ones.  

Prolonged exposure therapy also typically spans about 12 weeks. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), it teaches individuals to gradually approach their trauma-related memories, feelings and situations. They presumably learn that trauma-related memories and cues are not dangerous and do not need to be avoided.   

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM) and Blue Care Network (BCN) can help members find an in-network mental health professional by calling behavioral health access lines listed below: 

PPO: BEHAVIORAL HEALTH ACCESS LINE | 1-800-762-2382 

A free and confidential resource that’s just a call away when you need immediate support. Behavioral health professionals answer, 24/7. 

HMO: BEHAVIORAL HEALTH ACCESS LINE | 1-800-482-5982 

Connect with a behavioral health clinician if you need help finding a mental health or substance use provider. 

Behavioral health clinicians are available for routine assistance from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. For urgent concerns after hours, clinicians are also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

Learn more about mental health and options you have as a member to seek help at bcbsm.com/mentalhealth. 

Photo credit: Getty Images

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