How can trauma affect your body and mind
“If you have experienced a trauma it can be like having stared directly at the sun. Even after you look away the glare seems everywhere and prevents you from seeing things clearly. It can keep you from even opening your eyes at all for a while…”
Rosenbloom & William, 1999, p.6
In this section we explain the chemistry of the human stress response in some detail. This can help you understand many of the symptoms, experiences, and behaviors that can occur after you have been traumatized.
What happens in your body: The chemistry of trauma
When you experience a dangerous or traumatic event, a series of approximately 1,500 biochemical reactions are triggered within your body. These reactions are designed to help you handle a threat by preparing you either to fight or run away. The general pattern is as follows:
- Your recognition of threat and danger stimulates all your various stress-response pathways. Adrenaline and several endocrine hormones are released into your bloodstream.
- Increased glucocorticoids stimulate the hippocampus (which is responsible for converting sensory experience into enduring memory). This allows the hippocampus to create vivid memories of the event.
- Some other effects of increased adrenaline and other endocrine hormones in combination include:
- Increased cortisol production. Cortisol is a steroid that counters pain and inflammation and keeps blood-sugar at a certain level.
- Increased blood sugar. This blood sugar is used to feed your brain and muscles.
- Increased heart rate. Blood is pumped more quickly around your body.
- Changes in blood-flow. Arterial blood pressure increases. Blood is diverted away from your hands, feet and stomach, and towards your brain and major muscle groups. This helps the brain assess the threat and prepares the muscles for action.
- Increased platelet levels. More platelets in your bloodstream help your blood to clot better and faster if you are physically injured.
- Increased endorphin levels. Endorphins help to dull any pain you might experience. This helps you ignore pain long enough to act in ways that might help you survive.
There is a strong relationship between stress and illness, both physical and psychological. This is because the acute stress response takes a toll on your body over time if these biological responses do not return to normal baseline levels fairly rapidly. Here are some of the effects of a long-term elevated stress response:
- Repeatedly encountering terrifying or life-threatening events can sensitize your amygdala. This means that it can take less and less to activate the amygdala and send you into high-alert. This can cause the feeling of being chronically alert and jumpy after exposure to trauma.
- Recurrently high levels of glucocorticoids can cause cells in the hippocampus to shrink. This can compromise the brain’s ability to lay down and consolidate new memories. The good news is that both amygdala sensitization and hippocampus damage are potentially reversible. Cell regeneration can occur in the hippocampus and some other areas of the brain.
- Continued adrenaline presence in the bloodstream increases cholesterol production, decreases the rate at which cholesterol is removed from the bloodstream, and increases the deposition of plaque on the arterial walls. All of these conditions are associated with an increased risk of experiencing stroke and heart disease.
- More platelets in the blood promote clotting. This is very useful if you are physically injured, as it helps slow blood loss. However, over time, this can also increase your risk of experiencing a heart attack or a stroke.
- Stress-related changes in circulation may contribute to high blood pressure and migraine headaches.
- Cortisol impairs the effectiveness of some types of white blood cells that play a key role in your immune system. A weakened immune system makes the body more vulnerable to infection, colds, flu, and even certain types of cancer.
- An increased level of acid production in the stomach increases the risk of experiencing chronic stomach and digestive upsets.
- Chronically depleted endorphin levels can lead to less effective natural pain relief and a lowering of the sense of well-being that is typically produced by the presence of endorphins. This can lead to increased arthritis pain and severe headaches. Low endorphin levels may also contribute to the temptation to take drugs (e.g., caffeine and other substances) that increase or mimic the effects of endorphins.
What happens in your mind?
The impact of trauma is not only physical. Traumatic events also have mental and emotional consequences. We all have basic psychological needs. These include the need to feel relatively safe, the need to trust other people, the need to feel that we have some control over our lives, the need to feel that we are of value, and the need to feel close to other people (Saakvitne & Pearlman, 1996). Experiencing a traumatic event can undermine some or all of these needs. For example:
- Safety: Traumatic events can alter your assumptions and beliefs about how safe the world really is.
- Trust: When a traumatic event is man-made, it can undermine the basic sense of trust you have in other people.
- Control: Traumatic events can shatter your ideas and ideals about how much control you really have over your life and choices.
- Esteem and value: Traumatic events can disrupt your sense of self-worth, self-esteem, and inherent value.
- Intimacy: Impaired trust following traumatic events can make intimacy with other people difficult.
Most of the time, beliefs about the way the world works change slowly and gradually. “With trauma, however, basic beliefs can change quickly and dramatically, the way an earthquake can suddenly shift the course of a river. A belief may intensify, become absolute, reverse itself, or collapse altogether” (Rosenbloom & Williams, 1999, p.67). These sudden challenges to your beliefs and sense of meaning and order in the world can be very frightening and upsetting.
For personal reflection…
- Do you think you may be experiencing stress or trauma-related physical symptoms? If so, what are they?
- How have your beliefs in the five basic psychological need areas we discussed (safety, trust, control, esteem, and intimacy) been impacted by your experiences?
- At the end of the last section in the study text, you thought of an example of an event that might be traumatic for one person but not as traumatic for another person. Think of that example again. How might that event impact someone’s feelings and beliefs in relation to safety, trust, control, esteem, and intimacy?
- Now think of another person who experiences the same event but is affected very differently. Why might that person have reacted so differently?
Next: Symptoms of trauma