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How Does The Body Remember Trauma?

Published on December 20, 2020 by First Responder Wellness

Re-experiencing past trauma as physical symptoms that manifest in the body can be alarming. When someone experiences physical symptoms of post-traumatic stress (PTS), the body does not remember the event as something in the past. These symptoms can intrude visual, auditory, and other bodily functions causing the body and mind to feel as though they are re-living the threatening experience as if it were still occurring. These stress responses can potentially persist long after the event has occurred, leaving the sufferer wondering why they are experiencing such symptoms. This is because the body can remember trauma too. 

Although not everyone develops PTS after a traumatic experience, those repeatedly exposed to distressing scenes may be at a higher risk of developing trauma. First responders are a population that exposes themselves to potentially life-threatening situations to save others. Because of this, many war veterans, police officers, firefighters, emergency medical service professionals, and others within this profession may have had frightening experiences of their body remembering trauma. Understanding how and why this happens can help with the treatment of it.  

The Body’s Memory

According to The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment, written by Babette Rothschild, even when trauma does not cause any direct bodily harm, traumatic events can take a toll on the body as well as the mind as it is a psychophysical experience. One of the symptoms of posttraumatic stress is an increased excitement of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). This system is responsible for regulating the largely unconscious bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, pupillary response. It is the primary mechanism that controls the flight or fight response. Understanding how the body and the brain remembers, processes, and perpetuates trauma is key to trauma treatment. It is important to remember that both the mind and the body are affected; therefore, both should be treated. 

Our bodies and our emotions can only safely handle a limited amount of stress. Trauma occurs when we experience a situation that exceeds our ability to manage the consequences safely. When we encounter stress, our bodies naturally react in a way that expects us to take action by either fighting or fleeing. This is because stress and fear are designed to agitate us to get up and move. When stress is not associated with an immediate threat, and we do not have to fight or flight, our body stores up this energy. When this stress is pent up in the form of trauma, it can potentially lead to bodily pain. 

Impacting Your Health

Untreated past trauma can adversely affect your present and future health. According to an article on past trauma and future health, provided by Harvard Medical School research, the emotional and physical reactions trauma can trigger can make you more prone to severe health conditions. These include heart attack, stroke, obesity, diabetes, and cancer.     

These effects are likely due to two factors:

  1. Behavioral changes resulting from trauma – People who suffer from traumatic memories may try to escape them by engaging in risky behaviors such as drinking, smoking, drug use, or even overeating for comfort. These habits, in turn, can lead to health problems.
  2. Physical effects related to trauma – When you experience something anxiety-provoking, such as re-experiencing past trauma, your stress response activates. This produces more adrenaline causing your heart to race and your body to prime itself to react. When you experience these surges of adrenaline more often than someone who has not had the same history, it can cause wear and tear on the body,  just as a car engine would experience if it were constantly revving and racing. 

Finding Healing

It can be hard to seek help when you are experiencing trauma, as one of the outcomes is avoidance. It is common to avoid thinking about or talking about a traumatic experience as a form of protection because it may remind you of it. Some people may even be unaware of how trauma is affecting them and may not get help because of it. 

In some experiences, your body may be tensing up as a form of protection to tell you, “I don’t like this” or “I remember this sound, smell, touch, sight… and it is not good.” One important thing is to respect what your body is telling you. If your body is reacting, it may be a sign that your trauma was not just emotional but that it affected you on a cellular level. Paying attention to what our bodies are saying can help us become more in tune with ourselves. These memories can take a long time to heal, most likely because we are ignoring them when they are trying to call out our attention. Therapy can help process those traumatic memories, release them from the body, and recognize them in the mind. Once it is recognized in the mind, your mind can begin to heal.

Recognizing how and why past trauma may be affecting your body can help you better understand what your body is trying to tell you. Many times trauma experienced in the body is a form of protection when an event is too stressful for us to handle. It can affect the autonomic nervous system and other bodily functions. When this type of stress is not attended to, it can store this energy in the body. Just as you may come home from a stressful day at work and feel the tension in your neck and shoulders, past trauma can manifest itself in the body too. First responders experience potentially traumatic events at a higher rate than the general population. This is why it is important to look for signs that you or a loved one may be experiencing trauma. At First Responders Wellness, we are here to help the helpers and heal the healers. Call us at (888) 743-0490.