How Trauma Affects Mental, Emotional & Physical Health

TRIGGER WARNING: Trauma is an important, but difficult and sensitive topic that may remind you of your own experience(s) and trigger psychological, emotional and/or physical responses. As you’re reading through our October Trauma Series, I strongly encourage you to take extra special care of yourself and don’t hesitate to reach out to a licensed mental health professional or other trauma specialist if you feel overwhelmed by an inability to cope with any triggered responses.

 “Some days, trauma memories still knock the wind out of me.” – Unknown

Dear Friends:

Last week, we explored the foundational concepts of trauma, and I provided examples of traumatic events. If you have not yet read my blog post, I encourage you to do so before proceeding (or you may want to re-read it to refresh your memory).

Today, I’m discussing how trauma affects the mind, body, and emotions. In the throes of pain, it’s often difficult to recognize our mental, physical, and emotional responses or to ask for help. If you are among the 70 percent (or 223.4 million) of adults in the U.S. who have experienced a traumatic event at least once, see if you recognize any of the following effects of trauma in your own life.

How Trauma Affects Mental Health

Experiencing trauma can cause psychological effects such as flashbacks, panic attacks, poor concentration, and sleep disturbances. It can also put you at risk of developing mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), borderline personality disorder, and other mental disorders.

The long-term effects of trauma on mental health have been linked to severe anxiety, stress, and fear; depression; self-injury; suicide; abuse of alcohol and drugs; eating disorders, and poor self-care.

How Trauma Affects Physical Health

Trauma often manifests physically. For example, trauma causes the body to produce adrenaline and cortisol which activates a fight or flight response in which the body produces chemicals that prepare you to either fight or flee. This leads to increased heart rate and blood pressure, sweating, headaches, and gastrointestinal problems. This is the body’s normal evolutionary response to a crisis.

Trauma can affect physical health in many ways. This can include, but is not limited to aches and pains; agitation; anxiety; difficulty concentrating; dissociation; exhaustion; insomnia or nightmares; muscle tension; numbness; and physiological arousal. One might experience some or all of these and other symptoms.

Childhood trauma experiences can even affect brain structure and contribute to long-term physical and behavioral health problems. People can feel anxious for years after a traumatic experience, even if they were not physically injured. Unprocessed trauma is stored in the body and can negatively impact future health.

How Trauma Affects Emotional Health

Trauma affects everyone differently. Common emotional responses to a traumatic event include anger, anxiety, confusion, denial, fear, guilt, helplessness, hopelessness, moodiness, numbness, sadness, self-blame, self-loathing, shame, shock, and withdrawal. These responses are normal in that they affect most trauma survivors, are socially acceptable, self-limited (resolve without treatment), and psychologically effective.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Trauma symptoms generally last anywhere from a few days to a few months and gradually fade as you process the devastating event. Even when feeling better, you may be triggered periodically by painful memories or emotions—such as the anniversary or an emotional reminder of the traumatic event.

When trauma symptoms are relentless or worsen, it may signal Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). A natural response to trauma becomes PTSD when the nervous system gets "stuck" in a state of psychological shock, and you are unable to process the event.

Self-Help Strategies to Overcome Mental, Physical and Emotional Pain

Trauma can shatter your sense of security and make you feel helpless in a dangerous world. Remember it’s not the objective circumstances that determine whether an event is traumatic, but your subjective emotional experience of the event. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatized.

To heal traumatic pain, you must first acknowledge and feel it. The following self-help strategies can help speed your recovery.

  1. Meditation - An effective self-awareness and observation tool that prompts you to pay attention to what you're doing, feeling and emoting in the moment, without distractions. This is a great path to self-discovery and can also help you work through difficult situations in a calmer and more rational manner.
  2. Acceptance - Psychological acceptance means actively embracing distressing experiences. For example, when feelings arise, allow yourself to feel whatever you feel without censoring, defending, labeling, or judging those feelings.
  3. Self-Compassion - Be kind and understanding toward yourself and honor and accept your humanness to help minimize fear, anxiety, self-blame, guilt, shame, insecurity, and other negative feelings and emotions.
  4. Self-Expression - Express your thoughts, feelings, and emotions through art, drawing, music, dance, writing, clothing, hairstyle, and other creative forms to connect with your authentic self, display individuality, become more balanced, and increase overall well-being.
  5. Breathing Exercises - If you are feeling confused or disoriented, practice mindful breathing to help calm yourself. This can be as simple as taking in 60 breaths and focusing your attention on each "in" and "out" breath.
  6. Get Moving - Physical exercise helps the nervous system restore balance by burning adrenaline and releasing endorphins through movement to combat anxiety, depression, and PTSD. You don't have to run 10 miles, but can release tension by shaking your body, punching a pillow, taking a brisk walk, jogging, touching your toes, stretching, squeezing stress balls, crying until it stops naturally, or laughing to lighten your mood and release the heaviness in your chest.
  7. Engage in Social Activities - Participate in social activities or pursue hobbies that lift your spirit and bring you pleasure. This can help stimulate your mind, increase motivation, improve attitude and social skills, enhance self-esteem, and maintain and build social connections, 
  8. Join a Trauma Support Group - A peer support group can help you connect with other trauma survivors; overcome feelings of anxiety, depression, fear, isolation, loneliness, helplessness and hopelessness; develop new friendships; share experiences; strengthen coping skills; increase self-efficacy; and give and receive support from those facing similar situations.
  9. Volunteer - When you've experienced trauma, engaging with and serving others can relieve symptoms of anxiety, avoidance, depression, fear, isolation, numbness, and stress by increasing your self-confidence and perspective that the world can be safe again. Volunteering can also bring meaning and purpose to your life as you help others in a selfless way while positively impacting your community or environment.
  10. Maintain Healthy Routines - Eating, sleeping, and exercising on a regular schedule can diminish stress and anxiety and give you a greater sense of control over your life. If possible, avoid making major life decisions relative to finances, housing, career, relationships, and so forth immediately after a traumatic event, which can exacerbate stress and produce other negative consequences. Take the time you need and do whatever you deem most appropriate to aid the healing process. 

I would love to hear about your personal experience if you choose to try some – or all – of the above strategies designed to help you overcome the mental, physical, and emotional effects of trauma.

When to Seek the Help of a Trauma Specialist

Working through trauma can be painful, scary, and potentially re-traumatizing. Therefore, healing work is best undertaken with the help of an experienced trauma specialist. Finding the right therapist may take time, but it's vital that the therapist you choose is experienced in treating trauma.

In addition, the quality of the therapeutic relationship is essential. Choose  a professional that emphasizes your comfort and safety. If you do not feel respected, safe, understood, or that your concerns are taken seriously, promptly find another professional.

A Final Word

I hope you will find this blog post invaluable as you feel, deal, and heal from the mental, physical, and emotional effects of trauma. Conversely, if you're in a positive life space and someone you know is suffering, reach out to them and offer encouragement and support. Show compassion by letting them know that you’re concerned and care about their well-being. Help them identify a solution to their painful circumstances. Your lovingkindness will be especially beneficial if that person lacks the motivation to help themselves.

Next week, we will explore four (4) types of people that trauma produces, so stay tuned.

Until Next Time,

Dr. Mary

P.S., To learn more about trauma, grief and loss, check out our self-paced mini e-course, Through the Fire: Understanding, Finding Meaning in & Coping with Trauma, Grief & Loss, which includes a complimentary Course Companion Journal.

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