The Impact of Trauma and Stress on the Body
Jennifer L. Rolnick, Psy.D.
“There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.”― Friedrich Nietzsche
Sit back for a moment and think about your day yesterday. What kind of stressors were there? How many were there? Did you oversleep and have to rush to get ready? Run down your bus or train in order to make it to work on time? Did you get yelled at by your boss? Or realized you missed a deadline so you had to stay late to push through? Were you preoccupied by a thought, fight, confrontation, or thinking of an ill loved one? How many demands were other people putting on you that you had to think about and attend to?
Every day, we experience a variety of different stresses. Sometimes they feel more manageable and we can effectively cope with them. And other times they stay with us, exhaust us, and continue on through to the next day. Week. Month. Year. All of our daily stresses add up and we end up experiencing varying degrees of symptoms because of them. For example, we have trouble sleeping if we’re preoccupied or feeling anxious or restless.
Now sit back and think of your body. Where do you tend to feel your stress? Your worry? Your anxiety? Sadness? Anger? Maybe it’s through tension in your neck, clenching your jaw, a pit in your stomach or tightness in your chest. Everyone and every body is different.
Stress, especially traumatic stress, has a significant impact on our bodies. Under normal circumstances, events, memories, and experiences, our brains and bodies process and store incoming information using all parts of the brain (neocortex, limbic system, and brain stem). We are able to filter through our experiences using our higher order (neocortex) brain to make logical sense and put narrative to our experiences and store them properly while effectively processing the emotional content through our limbic system.
However, when a traumatic event occurs, the reptilian brain (limbic system and brain stem) takes over and our neocortex takes a back seat because it is not needed when we have to fight, flee or freeze. Our only goal is survival so we need instinct.
A trauma is anything that overwhelms and exceeds our ability to cope effectively. Trauma is a perceptual, somatic, and emotional experience. Traumatic experiences overwhelm our system and create a highly aroused, alert state in our bodies. Because of this, traumatic experiences are taken in as fragments rather than a whole experience and are stored in our somatic (body) memory to be processed at a later time when it is safe to do so. The body is only concerned with surviving a trauma. And to survive the body creates one of two, or both, reactions in the body; either a hyper-aroused (fight or flight) state or dissociative (freeze) state. Both of these are to help the body escape, fight, or numb the pain and experience of the trauma. It is common that those who have experienced trauma, especially prolonged trauma, will quickly fluctuate between these states of hyperarousal and dissociation.
As mammals, we have a unique shaking/tremor response that occurs in the body to release the excess charge after a stressful or traumatic event. For example, have you ever been in a car accident, or a near miss and had to react and slam on your breaks? Do you remember what happened after? Chances are, once you realized you were safe and didn’t hit the car in front of you, your body felt shaky. Or maybe you have a fear of public speaking, and every time you stand up in front of a crowd to talk, you notice your knees shaking and your voice quivering. This is your body discharging the excess tension and stress hormones released in high emotional states. By discharging this excess energy, the body is able to repair itself and effectively move through the traumatic event once it is over.
However, as humans, we are socialized to repress this instinctual response that naturally occurs in our bodies by holding tension. We’re told things like “suck it up,” “don’t show weakness,” and taught that it is wrong or shameful to show our stress, tension, and emotions. We don’t want others to see that we are nervous and shaking during a presentation, so we tense and suppress. We don’t want people to see how sad or impacted we are, so we hold back tears. We hold it all in. By doing this, we do not allow our bodies to effectively release and process what it needs to in order to heal.
Prolonged trauma and stress creates a new biological baseline in our bodies of adrenaline (fight/flight) and opioids (numbing, dissociation). When this happens, every day stress can activate those responses which are supposed to only be activated in life threatening situations. I like to call it having a broken danger detector. Frequently, our minds/egos (neocortex) like to take control over our mind/body reactions. Therefore, when our bodies want or need to have reaction, like discharge traumatic charge and energy, the ego – which has been socialized to feel shame, embarrassment, by experiencing emotion – will take over and try to shut down that natural physiological response. This causes the muscles in the body to contract and hold tension, preventing the body from its natural release process.
More recently, various fields have begun identifying the holistic needs of the mind and body. Stress and trauma are bio-neuro-physiological responses that require knowledge of and interventions involving the body and mind. One body based intervention is called Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE®). TRE® is a series of exercises that assist the body in releasing deep muscular patterns of stress, tension and trauma. Created by Dr. David Berceli, TRE® safely activates the natural reflex mechanism of shaking or vibrating that releases muscular tension, calming down the nervous system.
By allowing the body to use its own wisdom to release tension where it has been stored, the body will slowly start to return to a healthy homeostasis. Similar to verbal/narrative processing of highly emotional experiences such as traumas and losses, one could experience the original emotion (sadness, anxiety, etc.) that occurred at the time of the event by releasing areas where trauma and chronic tension have been stored. It’s important to pace and stay within the window of tolerance and allow the body to digest the energy and emotion that has been release to now properly store it.
For more information about TRE®, you can visit www.traumaprevention.com.
If you would like to learn TRE®, sign up for the upcoming workshop here.