When the Body Stores Trauma Within
The book "The Body Keeps The Score" by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk is a powerful read for understanding how trauma manifests, and how the body stores trauma. Read on to discover how trauma is stored in the body and the link between trauma and addiction. Additionally, discover ways to release this trauma.
What can trauma look like?
Before exploring how the body keeps the score, or stores trauma, it's important to first take a look at what trauma is.
The American Psychological Association defines trauma as being an emotional response to a terrible event such as an accident or natural disaster.
According to Dr. Van Der Kolk,
“Over 500,000 children are reported for abuse and neglect each year. One out of four Americans reports having been left with bruises after having been hit as a child, one out of five was sexually molested, one out of eight has witnessed severe domestic violence, and a quarter grew up with alcoholism or drug addiction. Almost every inmate in our prison system, by far the largest in the world, has a serious history of prior trauma. Half a million women are raped each year, half of them before they are adolescents.”
As widespread as trauma is, it isn’t only reserved for events like fighting in a war or experiencing sexual abuse. In fact, many day-to-day experiences can produce a trauma response within the body as well.
For instance, some things that can cause trauma are the death of a loved one, experiencing a significant break-up, and even moving to a new city.
The way a person was raised can cause them to develop trauma. Again, this doesn't necessarily mean they witnessed domestic violence or verbal abuse in the household. A person could have had two well-intentioned and loving parents, and still developed trauma.
Some instances that can cause childhood trauma include:
- Being constantly compared to others
- Not having a safe space to express emotions
- An emotionally unavailable parent
- Being held to an unattainable high standard
In an interview with MindBodyGreen, holistic psychiatrist Ellen Vora, M.D., shares:
“there's much more appreciation these days for micro-traumas—like chronic, more mildly traumatic things—that cumulatively over many years can amount to the same as one macro trauma.”
When trauma is unaddressed
Whether they are big traumas or little traumas, the effects of trauma don’t generally go away on their own. If left unaddressed, any of these experiences have the capacity to have profound effects on the brain, body, and spirit for years to come. These experiences can negatively impact on many areas of a person’s life.
Unfortunately, trauma can affect someone’s ability to perform well in school or in the workplace. It can impede their ability to form rich, fulfilling relationships. Trauma can lead to medical ailments, mental health concerns, and debilitating addictions.
How does the body respond to trauma?
To understand how the body stores trauma, it's helpful to look at what happens physically during and after a traumatic experience.
When a traumatic event happens, the body can respond in a few different ways. The most common responses are fight, flight, or freeze.
Fight or flight
When a stressor is faced, the body's autonomic nervous system can prompt the body to go into fight or flight mode. This means the body shifts its energy towards fighting off a perceived threat. In this state, stress hormones, including cortisol, are released. The body experiences increased heart rate, high blood pressure, and tense muscles while digestion slows down.
Conversely, the body can also go into freeze mode. When this happens to a person, they may dissociate or detach from the event they’re experiencing. This causes certain areas of the brain, including the parts controlling fear or anger, to become more active. Adversely, areas in the frontal cortex become less active. These areas of the brain control many functions including self-awareness, connection with others, and decision-making. Brain scans conducted in research studies have displayed how trauma impacts these areas of the brain.
When the body doesn’t move forward
Ideally, the body will return to its baseline after the traumatic event has occurred. So, within a month, memories of the event may become less vivid and anxiety related to the event begins to dissipate.
However, if a trauma is not processed and worked through after the traumatic event, the body may remain in a state of fight or flight, or hyper vigilance.
In The Body Keeps The Score, Dr. Van Der Kolk writes,
"Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become experts at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves."
Examples of what it can look like when the body stores trauma and is in a state of hyper vigilance include:
Signs that the body is hyper vigilant
- Anxiety and nervousness
- Easily startled
- Constantly being on guard
- Difficulty in relaxing
If the trauma is not processed and worked through, the body may also remain in a state of freeze. Below are a few examples of what this can look like:
Signs that the body is in freeze response
- Flat affect
- Not feeling connected to others
- Living on autopilot
In this way, the trauma continues to stay in the body, even if not at a conscious level.
How does this trauma physically manifest?
When the body stores trauma, it can manifest in a myriad of ways.
According to Psychology Today, 8 million people have post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, at any given time. Aside from the mental and emotional effects, PTSD also has physical effects including dysregulation of hormone secretion, the immune system, and the body’s neurochemistry.
These systems contribute to the body’s diseased cells and other systems. According to the book Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioural Health Services,
“(There is a) significant connection between trauma, including adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and chronic health conditions. Common physical disorders and symptoms include somatic complaints; sleep disturbances; gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, neurological, musculoskeletal, respiratory, and dermatological disorders; urological problems; and substance use disorders.”
Additionally, studies show that 35% of people with chronic pain also suffer from PTSD, with an even higher percentage of people with fibromyalgia struggling with the same.
Moreover, research conducted by Kelly Turner, Ph.D. showed that terminally ill cancer patients who experienced full remission unexpectedly cited releasing emotional stress or trauma as a key factor in their healing.
Below are a few more physical manifestations of trauma:
- Sleep issues/insomnia
- Digestive issues
- Difficulty eating
- Severe headaches
- Muscle tension
- Panic attacks
- Rapid heartbeat
- Increased blood pressure
- Feeling numb
Somatization occurs when bodily symptoms are the manifestation of emotional distress. People struggling with physical symptoms that are seemingly out of nowhere or inexplicable may inadvertently be experiencing somatization. This is because these individuals are often unaware of the emotions they’ve been pushing down or repressing. Sometimes, a person may insist on a medical cause for their ailment as a means of avoiding their emotional pain, despite medical tests finding no conceivable cause.
It’s evident that when something traumatic happens to someone, it doesn’t solely affect their brain, because the entire system of the body is connected. As such, this inherently leads trauma to affect the body as well.
What is the link between trauma in the body and addition?
As noted above, when the body stores trauma it can manifest in so many different ways. If the trauma is not processed, all of those difficult emotions will get pushed down and ignored. However, this doesn't mean that these difficult emotions go away. They live within the body, unconsciously, and can push people to find means of relief.
When trying to feel better, people find relief in different ways. For instance, healthy ways of coping can look like spending time with friends or engaging in hobbies that feel good. Conversely, slightly unhealthier ways of coping can be keeping oneself busy or becoming a workaholic in an effort to avoid the underlying emotional pain.
Unfortunately, developing an addiction is another way of finding relief, although it is a truly destructive one.
Many people struggle with nightmares, flashbacks, and extreme discomfort when recalling a traumatic experience. They simply want to forget that it happened. When seeking out substances, these individuals may be looking for an escape from painful memories.
Also, trauma can bring with it complex emotions such as shame and guilt. When someone feels so badly about themselves, even though the trauma was not their fault, they can turn to substance use as a means to help themselves feel better.
How to release trauma stored in the body
Fortunately, trauma is not a life sentence. In fact, there are many ways to heal from trauma and to release trauma stored in the body.
According to Dr. Van Der Kolk, Western medicine‘s first line of treatment is often to prescribe drugs for trauma, but that only helps neutralise symptoms of an underlying problem.
He explains that trauma is far more than just the memory of the event, and that the body is essentially set into a state of high alert. Therefore, he emphasizes the importance of the mind-body connection and movement of the body in order to release stored trauma.
People may be disconnected from what’s going on internally when the body stores trauma. According to Dr. Van Der Kolk, yoga allows people to open up their relationships with their bodies. Yoga enables a person to become aware of the sensations within their body, their movements, and their posture. Through his research, Dr. Van Der Kolk found that yoga was a more effective form of treatment for PTSD than any of the pharmaceutical drugs his team had studied. He shares that although yoga may not be for everyone, it appears to be an effective way for someone to increase their inner sense of bodily safety, control, and flexibility.
Neurofeedback is a way to harness the brain’s capacity for change in order to alter the shape of brain networks. Research has demonstrated that neurofeedback has been effective in helping people improve learning, sharpen their attention, and alleviate feelings of anxiety. Dr. Van Der Kolk has done extensive research on neurofeedback and shares that it appears to be helpful in releasing trauma.
Dr. Van Der Kolk shares that truly great psychotherapy can be helpful for someone struggling with trauma. He states that this is not necessarily to help the individual fix their problems, but to help them acknowledge the extent of their trauma and how it has affected them and their life.
Engaging in therapy can help a person to develop compassion towards themselves. It can also help them to understand that what they're experiencing is completely normal. This is an incredibly important process.
An additional therapy that appears to be helpful in treating trauma is EMDR. EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing, is a therapy intervention during which the client is asked to recall the traumatic memory while engaged with bilateral stimulation. Through his own observation, Dr. Van Der Kolk observed many patients undergo EMDR and consequentially let go of their trauma. EMDR appears to help alter the neural circuitry of the brain, thereby helping the client alter their perception of the traumatic experience.
In addition to the methods described above, below are some other recognised forms of releasing trauma from the body:
Additional forms of releasing trauma:
- Somatic experiencing
A final word on releasing trauma stored in the body
A huge step in recovering from trauma is becoming aware that it is continuing to affect you. The above techniques can be incredibly helpful in understanding and acknowledging the profound effects trauma has had on your life.
For some, engaging in the techniques above is enough to help release the trauma stored in the body.
For others, the emotions that come up along with the trauma need to be processed in a healthy way.
Psychotherapy, journaling, or talking to a loved one can help process these emotions in a safe and healthy space.
Author - Thurga