What Do Traumatic Events Cause in the Body?

By Brynna Pawlows

Have you ever smelled a specific cologne or perfume in public? Has a certain tone of voice or phrasing caused you to lose focus or feel suddenly frightened? Did it leave you inexplicably nervous, shaky, or detached? That may have been a trauma response — a physical or emotional response to a trigger.

Many are aware of the physical effects of mental health, namely anxiety: a knot in the stomach, racing heart beat, even shakiness. But how does trauma affect the body? Trauma’s impact on our physical functioning is less cut and dry than the impact of anxiety, OCD, or depression.

When a trauma response is activated, the limbic system is assessing for threat which decreases blood flow from the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for rational thinking, cognitive processing, and reason.

Our brains work overtime to protect us. A brain with trauma rarely feels that it can “clock out.”

A Quick Lesson in Neuroscience

Trauma impacts the brain and the nervous system. Similar to the excitement of a roller coaster, trauma ignites our adrenaline and activates the limbic system. Being our “fear center,” the limbic system is responsible for fight/flight/freeze/fawn responses, adrenaline, cortisone, and other neurochemicals that identify a stressful and/or threatening situation.

When you are riding a roller coaster, you have likely seen the tracks, knowing there will be a drop before a loop. You feel the protective safety restraints keeping you in your seat. Upon entering, you hear the riders up front laugh — you hear them having fun, so you know fun is coming your way! The excitement you experience is not necessarily traumatic because your sensory and emotional experience is rooted in a sense of safety.

Alternatively, if you are in a car crash, you will experience excitement differently. What makes this experience different is that your emotional and sensory expectations were not prepared for this event. In a car crash, you are not prepared to feel the seat belt lock, or hear crushing metal, a scent of burnt tires, or the sight of a car too close to yours. The limbic system stores this as an emotionally stressful and unsafe experience. This contributes to how we remember trauma, which is often in sensory fragments rather than narratives.

Most people will not experience a fight/flight/freeze/fawn response upon hearing or seeing a roller coaster. They may, however, experience this response if they were previously in an accident and are in a car with someone tailgating the person ahead.

How Do I Know This is a Trauma Response?

You’re on the train and you smell a perfume or cologne that an abusive ex-partner wore. It may become harder to breathe, you may feel unable to move, or have the sudden urge to get out at the next stop.

Your brain registered this sense as a threat and activated your limbic system, releasing stress hormones. With less blood flowing to your prefrontal cortex, you are acting upon an emotional response rather than a logical one. A fight response may cause you to get up, look around for that ex-partner, and want to confront the situation. A flight response may cause you to get off the train immediately. A freeze response may cause you to feel immobilized and emotionally detach from the moment. A fawn response may cause you to revert to “good” behaviors indicated by your previous partner (i.e. sitting up straight if you were often criticized about your posture).

It’s important to note that these are simplified examples. Trauma responses are extremely personal to each person and situation. Part of what psychotherapy does is explore these in a safe setting.

How Do We Treat Trauma Responses in Therapy?

While trauma has an impact on how we function, it does not have to define us or go unmanaged. Psychotherapy provides many methods and modalities to address trauma and how it lives in the body. One approach for addressing trauma is through bottom-up techniques. We discover how to identify when we are experiencing a traumatic response and then use a variety of tools to calm the body. This sends a “Hey! We are fine right now” message to our limbic system. In this state, we are more likely to make healthier choices for ourselves, emotionally regulate, and provide a more objective assessment of the circumstance at hand.

Read More: What to Look for in a Therapist

Trauma impacts our bodies hormonally and behaviorally. With psychotherapy, we can learn to reduce the impact of our responses, process the trauma we’ve endured, and find new ways to connect to the world around us.

To identify what emotional, physical, and behavioral responses are a result of trauma you may have experienced, please talk to a licensed mental health professional. To schedule an appointment, you can contact the Park Avenue Psychotherapy office at (212) 433-2384 or info@parkavenuepsychotherapy.com.