How Trauma Impacts Your Physical Health

Trauma and emotional distress can change us on a physiological level. If we are pushed too far, we may lose our ability to cope — and our bodies pay the price. Fortunately, you can mitigate your trauma response and enjoy better health.

With Patricia Celan MD and Yasmin Akhunji MD

 

Trauma— especially early trauma — is linked to increased rates of anxiety, depression, suicidality, and post-traumatic stress disorder. But that’s not all. Trauma, if not managed, can also impact your physical health — years after it’s occurred.

Most of us are no stranger to life’s many hardships, but the medical community hasn’t always taken a trauma-informed approach to care (trauma-informed care presupposes that all patients have some form of trauma that may be affecting their well-being). Luckily, more and more doctors are discussing the inextricable link between our mental and physical health. The mind and body are connected after all.

When we go through a traumatic experience or a series of experiences (such as being abused, a parent dying, or getting into a car accident), our bodies trigger physiological responses as a way of adapting to the event or events. These responses aren’t always up to us, of course. They’re determined by our genes, our coping responses, and how our brains regulate. These responses are important mechanisms for survival — but sometimes they can work too well.

According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, lasting or latent trauma from events can trigger endocrine and immune problems (that a person may or may not have already been genetically predisposed to). These include chronic autoimmune illnesses, heart attack, diabetes, stroke, and even cancer.

You may be asking yourself if the trauma you endured was bad enough to cause health issues. The short answer: Yes. A traumatic event itself isn’t necessarily the trigger, it’s how our bodies uniquely respond to that trauma that can cause health problems. We all respond differently to stressors.

For example, if you were abused as a child, you may experience fear, anxiety, and distress when people yell or come too close to you. Even though you know you’re safe, your body can be flooded with anxiety and stress, complete with heart palpitations and shallow, rapid breathing. This is your body’s physiological, learned response to trauma. This response can be mitigated with intentional care, though! 

The physiological effects of trauma

Dr. Celan explains that trauma sensitizes something called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is the body’s central stress response system. You can think of this as the intersection of our central nervous system and endocrine system.

Because trauma impacts the HPA axis, it can affect our hormones, especially adrenaline, cortisol, and oxytocin. Trauma makes us more reactive to stressors, and more likely to increase the stress hormone cortisol.

In certain situations, hormones like cortisol are very important. Think: If you’re being chased by a wild animal, adrenaline kicks in to help you get out of danger’s reach. But when you’re not actively in danger, trauma keeps your body in that revved-up state, putting serious mileage on your body.

“Cortisol can be toxic when it is chronically high, ultimately leading to increased risks of health conditions such as depression or heart disease,” according to Dr. Celan.

Once the stressor is removed, the body’s hormones should respond in kind. The only problem? “A body that is exposed to trauma long-term will continue to produce these hormones, which may lead to negative long-term effects on the body,” according to Dr. Yasmin Akhunji, an endocrinologist with Paloma Health. “This puts you at an increased risk for anxiety, depression, heart disease, sleep disruption, weight gain, and memory/concentration damage.”

Trauma also reduces the release of oxytocin, which is “the love hormone that promotes sociability and the relationship between a mother and a child as well as romantic partners,” says Dr. Lina Velikova MD, PhD, a medical advisor at Supplements101. “Early trauma decreases the oxytocin levels in the brain and affects its receptors in childhood and later in life.”

Oxytocin is responsible for mood boosts, while working as a protective buffer against stressors. Having lower levels of oxytocin could mean less protection and adaptability.

Trauma can also lead to increased and long-term inflammation, which is an immune response to foreign invaders or damaged tissue. While inflammation is good in the short term, it’s a main culprit behind heart disease and autoimmune diseases if it is a chronic issue. 

The physical and emotional pain of trauma can also lead to unhealthy habits like smoking or drinking to numb emotions or overeating as a way of self-comforting. “The famous ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study found that as someone's quantity of traumatic experiences increased, so did the chances of engaging in negative health behaviors such as smoking or drug use,” according to Dr. Celan. If this is you, you’re not alone — but being aware of your behaviors and their possible root causes is important.

Mitigating trauma’s impact on your body

Unfortunately, trauma is a part of life, but focusing on a healthy lifestyle and taking care of yourself sends a message to your body that it is safe and nourished. This can help it reset.

Adjust your lifestyle. Eat a healthy diet, get regular exercise, and sleep enough. Sounds easy enough in theory, right? But implementing lifestyle changes can be hard IRL, especially when you’re feeling down. You can start by filling your plate with nutritious food and working on getting movement into your day every single day. Try to get at least seven hours of good, solid sleep. Making these actions a priority daily, especially when you don’t feel like it, can help your body recalibrate.

Engage in joyous, oxytocin-increasing activities. Dr. Celan recommends regularly participating in activities that can help balance your hormones. “You can mitigate trauma-induced body responses by engaging in activities that increase oxytocin and decrease cortisol,” she says. “For example, hugging people or pets, engaging in compassionate behavior, laughing at a stand-up comedy special or having a warm, relaxing bubble bath are all healthy ways to boost your oxytocin levels.”

Decrease your cortisol levels with mindfulness meditation. Dr. Celan also suggests embracing mindfulness meditation, “which can actually cause beneficial changes in brain structure and neurochemical release.” This is because it triggers the body’s relaxation response.

In fact, a 2018 study in Psychiatry Research found that mindfulness meditation decreased inflammation as well as biological stress reactivity while improving resilience to stressors. The study had participants engage in breath-awareness, body-scanning, and gentle Hatha yoga.

One easy way to implement mindfulness meditations into your day is by downloading an app such as Calm, Headspace, or Breeth, which will guide you through mindfulness meditations. Or, you can simply sit for 10-20 minutes, calming breathing in and out. Focus on each and every breath. Return to the breath — nonjudgmentally — when you have distracting thoughts. Then keep returning to it until your timer pings.

Advocate for yourself. It is important to understand that you are not “crazy” or “imagining it” if you feel run-down, constantly sick, or chronically under the weather after experiencing a traumatic event. While a wide variety of factors contribute to illness, trauma’s impact is real.

Be sure to discuss any emotional, psychological, or physical symptoms you are having with your doctor — and don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself if you believe you need help or extra medical attention. 

Unfortunately, most people don’t get help when they experience trauma, which can worsen the damage. According to Harvard Health, the very thought of seeing a doctor or therapist can feel overwhelming — simply because you don’t want to face the facts or dredge up old feelings and memories.

Working with a professional may be uncomfortable at first, but it can improve your psychological, endocrine, and immune health, which will make your life more fulfilling down the road. You can also confide in a close friend, family member, or even a journal as you begin to make lifestyle changes to heal both your body and your mind.

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