Inside Out: What Emotional Trauma Does to the Body

The body can be impacted greatly by emotional trauma, and vice versa. Learn how the effects of PTSD can be counteracted for mind-body wellness.

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.


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How Massage Therapy Helps Veterans and Trauma Survivors

Massage therapy has the potential to benefit people who have experienced any type of trauma. For veterans who are having trouble reacclimating to civilian life, massage therapy may help them let their guard down. Refugees, survivors of abuse, and accident victims may also benefit from the care and support that can come from massage therapy.

Many experts refer to the mental and physical repercussions of traumatic events as posttraumatic stress (PTSD). When people experience dramatic and intense stress, their bodies and minds may respond with PTSD symptoms. When they return to everyday life and routine activities, they often need help to turn off the coping mechanisms they may have developed in response to the trauma.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), 10-20% of combat veterans experience PTSD in any given year. However, military personnel often describe a culture of self-repression that keeps them from reporting and working through their PTSD symptoms. Many soldiers want to be seen as strong and valuable members of their units, so they may not ask for help when they need it most.

PTSD is a common response to a traumatic event, not an indicator of weakness. More than 50% of Americans experience abuse, accidents, and assaults, or witness the injury or death of others. Roughly 4% of men and 10% of women will experience PTSD at some time in their lives. If you have PTSD, you’re not alone, and massage therapy may be an effective treatment option to help manage symptoms.

Effects of PTSD

If you’ve been through a major trauma and think you might have PTSD, talk with your physician immediately. Some effects of PTSD may include:

  • Hypervigilance– Veterans and others who have endured trauma may have trouble turning off the fight or flight response state. The brain can trigger powerful fear responses that make it difficult to trust others.
  • Insomnia – Many people with PTSD have trouble sleeping and may experience nightmares. They may feel agitated and unable to settle down.
  • Depression – People with PTSD commonly withdraw from others and may have thoughts of suicide. They may lose interest in activities they used to enjoy, and they might have changes in behavior.
  • Substance abuse – Studies of PTSD have shown high rates of substance abuse among those diagnosed with PTSD. For example, one study found as much as 80% of Vietnam veterans in treatment for PTSD abused alcohol and other drugs. However, increased acceptance of the diagnosis in recent decades has led to a decline in these numbers.
  • Emotional triggers – People who have experienced trauma may show extreme sensitivity to similar events or startle more easily than others. People with PTSD often display irritability, anger, and other outbursts of negative emotion.
  • Immune disorders – Those who experience trauma and find it hard to shut off their fight or flight response state often have an excess of cortisol in their systems. This stress hormone represses the immune system and prepares the fight or flight response, even when conditions are stable.

As researchers learn more about PTSD, they continue to point out the usefulness of massage for those who have been exposed to trauma. Massage therapists can help trauma survivors reset their fight or flight mechanisms, ease hypervigilance, and begin to move forward with their lives.

Massage as a Complementary Treatment for PTSD

Massage treatments typically work well in combination with other treatment methods such as psychotherapy.

For example, one study examined a group of 14 female veterans with PTSD who used prescription painkillers. Seven women received only standard treatments; the other seven underwent eight weeks of massage, inner-body awareness, and talk therapies. The women in the massage group experienced pain relief, relaxation, feelings of safety, and a new sense of trust.

One study participant pointed out how well her massage treatments complemented her inner-body awareness sessions. Regular massage therapy provided short-term relief from chronic pain and tension so she could address the underlying causes of the stress with other therapists.

Another study focused on the effects of massage therapy and other complementary treatments for survivors of refugee traumas, child abuse, torture, and other traumatic situations. They highlighted the effectiveness of massage for treating people with PTSD, depression, and chronic pain.

To explore the effects massage therapy could have on trauma survivors, Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center formed a wellness group for Somali refugee women. These women were exposed to the trauma of more than two decades of civil war and experienced lingering pain and psychological issues. Harborview Medical Center decided to offer a program of massage therapy and yoga to address the women’s chronic pain and emotional concerns. The program has grown in popularity as it continues to offer an option for pain relief and health education to Somali women in Seattle.

In another example of massage therapy’s effect on trauma, a team of German researchers interviewed a shiatsu massage therapist who treated soldiers who had returned home from conflict in Afghanistan, as well as children and young adults from war zones. The researchers learned massage therapy can treat the body/mind disassociation that often results from PTSD, unlock emotional energy, and maintain healthy relationships. Even those scarred by war and other traumas were able to recognize a healing connection between mind and body through massage.

If you think you or a loved one has PTSD, talk with your doctor immediately before seeking a massage. Massage therapy might be a beneficial complementary treatment to help ease symptoms.


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