Inside Out: What Emotional Trauma Does to the Body

By Jo Sahlin, Massagetique Correspondent
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A good bodywork practitioner knows that health issues and pain are not just physical and mental health issues are not just psychological. For optimal health, the body and brain work in tandem to function properly and keep each other running smoothly. When we come into contact with something that endangers either side of that process, all systems are affected and must be treated to re-establish total body and mind wellness. For effective treatment, it helps to understand what happens in both body and mind when a traumatic incident occurs.

Enduring the Fight-or-Flight Response

When we’re met with a stressor–anything we perceive as a threat–our brains must choose to fight or flight? Sometimes we make this decision and move on so instantaneously we’re hardly able to register something was a threat. Other times this conundrum, known as the alarm phase, is so sustained the body has to make adjustments to accommodate it.

In this survival mode, the brain signals the body to use all energy and resources to resist the threat. Heart rate increases, cells use more energy, and there are changes in circulation. If this process lasts longer than a few hours and the threat is still present, the body can begin to shut down all reserves in order to protect itself.

The alarm phase of stress response teaches the brain to recognize and overcome similar threats in the future. But during a particularly stressful event—one categorized as trauma in the brain that could lead to posttraumatic stress—the brain might get stuck, logging its extreme trauma response as a default rather than one to file away. Next time it is presented with a threat, even if the threat is relatively harmless, the brain might use the same response. This is one possible indication of posttraumatic stress (PTSD).

Survival mode is not meant to be the body’s standard response, however. Such a reaction takes a toll on the nervous system and can lead to subsequent health issues. There is also evidence the brain may be damaged during these periods of intense stress response.

When Stress Becomes Trauma

In extreme circumstances, when a stressor lingers, is physically harmful, or causes an intense emotional reaction, the brain and body are likely to register it as trauma. After such an incident, one may experience posttraumatic stress, which can manifest in many ways:

  • Sleeplessness or insomnia
  • Depression
  • Mood issues, irritability, or anger problems
  • Flashbacks or nightmares
  • Anxiety

Though these effects are considered largely psychological, each can have physical consequences. This means that while you may have addressed an issue like whiplash after a car accident by seeing a chiropractor and massage therapist, ensuing depression may disturb digestion and contribute to health problems.

The Physical Toll of Untreated Trauma

Some mental health aspects of PTSD affect the body in more abstract ways, while others have a more direct correlation with physical health. For example, when PTSD leads to altered eating habits, including binge eating or skipping meals, physical ailments can range from fatigue and malnutrition to cardiac issues.

Depression, which can occur on its own or as an aspect of posttraumatic stress, may manifest in feelings of loneliness or a tendency toward isolation. An individual with depression may find it difficult or impossible to leave the house or interact with strangers. As a result, they might not be motivated to seek health care, potentially prolonging illness.

Compromised mental health has been linked to general aches and malaise, acute pain, inflammatory issues, and more. When psychological issues are present, the immune system is more likely to fail, increasing the possibility of illness. If the source of trauma caused substantial physical injury, the body may be slow to heal or prone to infection if PTSD symptoms are complicating the recovery process.

Approaching the Treatment of PTSD

The far-reaching effects of mental health issues related to PTSD have helped psychotherapists and bodywork professionals alike understand more about the ways one can heal after trauma. More comprehensive treatment methods are being developed to help manage all aspects of PTSD.

The days of thinking about stress, anxiety, trauma, depression, and other mental health issues only as psychiatric diagnoses have passed. After all, we know the brain controls everything about how we function–whether it’s picking up a fork, catching a ball, or fleeing from a potential threat. When something happens to disrupt this healthy brain activity, the psychological damage has the potential to adversely affect not only thoughts and mental state, but also physical health.

The more we learn about the physical nature of PTSD and trauma symptoms, the sooner we can continue to promote whole-body, person-centered healing techniques that address issues beyond the psychological.

The more we learn about the physical nature of PTSD and trauma symptoms, the sooner we can continue to promote whole-body, person-centered healing techniques that address issues beyond the psychological. Massage therapy has been shown to decrease stress and release feel-good chemicals like serotonin and cortisol, counteracting the adverse effects of almost any mental health issue. Massage and bodywork are not meant to replace psychotherapy, but they can be effective complementary therapies. If you are experiencing PTSD or related mental health issues, consider seeking bodywork in addition to ongoing psychotherapeutic care.

References:

  1. Bremner, J. D. (2002). Does stress damage the brain?: Understanding trauma-related disorders from a mind-body perspective. New York, NY: WW Norton & Company.
  2. Dryden, T., & Fitch, P. (2007). Recovering body and soul from post-traumatic stress disorder. Massage Therapy Journal, 133-19. Retrieved from https://www.amtamassage.org/articles/3/MTJ/detail/1817
  3. Fehrs, L. (2013, August 1). Muscle memory, trauma and massage therapy. Institute for Integrative Health Care. Retrieved from http://www.integrativehealthcare.org/mt/archives/2013/08/muscle-memory-trauma-and-massage-therapy.html
  4. Gatchel, R. J. (2004). Comorbidity of chronic pain and mental health disorders: the biopsychosocial perspective. American Psychologist, 59(8), 795. Retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/amp/59/8/795/
  5. Meeks, J. A. and Byrami, S. (2016). A systematic review of complimentary therapies to treat symptoms of post-traumatic stress: Disorder in the aftermath of domestic abuse. Senior Honors Projects. 243. Retrieved from http://commons.lib.jmu.edu/honors201019/243
  6. Premkumar, K. (2012). Anatomy and physiology: The massage connection (3rd ed.), 328, 351-353. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

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