Psychological is Physiological
Have you felt like something has been off bodily but are looking for a way to understand it in terms of psychological trauma? You're not alone. PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is often invisible, leaving us without a solid understanding or direct solutions on how to feel better. There is an overhwleming amount of evidence suggesting, or rather dictating that we must no longer separate the mental from the physical when it comes to chronic illness. Acknowledging how visible PTSD can be in people's bodies can pave the way for more effective and targeted treatments, allowing people to live and not be in a 24/7 state of healing. In this post we'll break down 3 ways that trauma lives visibly in our bodies so we can kickstart the journey before even needing to talk about the feeling of what has happened.
1. REM Sleep
When our whole being becomes preoccupied with immediate survival following traumatic stress, there are few resources to appropriately fuel other important bodily systems and their respective functions. One of these functions is the role REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep plays in emotional processing and long term memory consolidation. When we don't fall into this phase of sleep, never fully relaxing, our brains don't get the chance to place a timestamp on the emotions of that day, leaving them to be ever-presently felt in the viscera. Studies have found that when we are deprived of this sleep stage, we experience an increase in cortisol production and also exhibit higher levels of fear and anxiety-related responses. Without this crucial processing time, the "that was then, this is now" part of the mind is severely disrupted.
As you can imagine, this makes all other tasks in life more difficult than they already are. Responding to present day stressors with an outdated template for how to handle them insidiously affects our judgment and perception of the social world around us. Relationships across all facets of life suffer, leading to more stress, and further disrupted sleep. All of this happening beneath the level of conscious awareness is a testament to how skilled our brains are at protecting us from imminent danger at the expense of our long term health. So if you're beginning a trauma informed journey of mental healthcare, assessing your sleep hygiene is one way to start to treat PTSD without even addressing the inner mental processes accompanying the memories. Studies also show that if we sleep within the first 24 hours following a traumatic event we can more effectively prevent the development of PTSD or exacerbation of pre-existing stress related illness.
2. The Gut: Our Second Brain
When we consider that the gut is often referred to as our "second brain" due to the bi-directional communication between the two, it's clear that the impact of trauma on our bodies and minds is significant. The fact that this pathway is bidirectional means that we can literally put ourselves at further risk for developing PTSD following stressful events if our pre-existing gut health is poor. Recent research has identified a potential connection between changes in gut bacteria and the onset of PTSD symptoms. Specifically, stress can lead to increased intestinal permeability, or "leaky gut," which may in turn trigger chronic inflammation in the colon and GI tract. Other functional bowel disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), have also been linked to stress. In fact, stress is a known trigger for flare-ups in IBS. Subsequently, trauma leads to other lifestyle changes that cause further damage to our gut health, increasing mental dysfunction, and the cycle continues.
Following a traumatic event, being conscious of what foods we consume can help the overall processing of emotions in memory consolidation. And if we wish to take the more preventative route, being conscious of our diets can increase resiliency in the face of potential future stressors. Before you jump to psychoactive pharmaceuticals for anxiety and depression, or over the counter medicine for digestive health, assessing your gut health with a GI specialist who is trauma informed may once again alleviate your symptoms without diving into the stories of what has happened throughout your life.
3. The Immune System
Many people label themselves with having a "weak immune system", in that they frequently suffer from all sorts of viral and bacterial infections, never seeming to build immunity and experience less severe symptoms each subsequent time they feel under the weather. This too is a bodily system that is directly affected by traumatic stress. If PTSD leaves us preoccupied with the illusion that our immediate survival is at stake, why would our nervous systems distribute much power to the developing the cells that fight off long term disease and illness?
In one study conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital by several trauma experts, it was uncovered that survivors of intense trauma had abnormalities in the ratio of 2 distinct immune system cells. One set called RA cells are referred to as "memory cells" and adapt to quickly respond to toxins they've already encountered in the past. They remember the intruder, and the plan to fend it off. The other type of cells, RO, are turned on when we encounter a new toxin not yet seen by the body, and they begin the fight from a place of lesser experience. In trauma survivors, the proportion of RA memory cells may be overactive and ready to attack even when there is no threat present - sometimes even attacking the body's own cells that aren't posing a threat, as we see in many cases of autoimmune disease.
It can be overwhelming to realize how cyclical the relationship between stress and our bodies is, in that stress leads to illness, and illness leads to more stress. However, the silver lining is that all of these systems have a certain plasticity to them. They can be conditioned and rewired to function how they once did, or even better than before the trauma because said issues make us more susceptible to developing PTSD in the first place. Another silver lining is that these 3 systems/functions affect each other as well. Tackling any one of these areas and their associated issues will inevitably ease the stress of the others.
Despite all of the overwhelming evidence that emotional trauma leaves tangible imprints on the physical body, we continue to face the stigma that these symptoms can be removed by will power alone. The only part of healing from trauma that is fueled by will is a commitment to enduring temporary pain and discomfort, for long term relief. And the methods through which that temporary pain is endured are dynamic actions to be carried out, not just deciding to "think positively".
Sean O'Connor is a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) at Peaceful Living Mental Health Counseling in Scarsdale, NY.
Sean specializes in sports psychology and trauma informed counseling to helps adults and athletes overcome anger, depression, anxiety, PTSD and stress.
Sean loves working with athletes and survivors of childhood trauma and helps them heal from the past, love the present, and have hope for the future.
Our New Therapist, Briana Collins, LMHC has some availability to take new clients!
Briana specializes in working with individuals 13 and up, struggling with anxiety, life transitions, ADHD, and gender identity.
Briana uses a combination of Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Mindfulness, and Gestalt & Schema Therapy in her work with clients.
She is available Monday - Thursdays, afternoons and evenings, in person and virtual.