How Past Trauma Can Live in The Body
Updated: Feb 12
Trauma and our nervous system
Your nervous system is your body’s command centre. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is one of the two divisions of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and is responsible for the body's rapid involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations. The other division is the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS governs the ‘fight or flight’ response, whilst the PNS controls the ‘rest and digest’ response. These two systems work in opposite ways to regulate many functions in the body and it’s vitally important that they remain in balance with each other.
All experiences are stored in our bodies.
Not all memories can be accessed through our brain in the form of words or images. Some memories, traumatic ones in particular, are imprinted in our bodies as feelings or/and sensations only. Thus, traditionally used therapy methods focusing on our cognitive, affective or behavioural functioning might be insufficient to get to the root of the problem and to offer long-term recovery from trauma. Somatic (meaning “of the body”) therapies are body-oriented therapies that can facilitate the process of accessing traumatic experiences so that they can be fully and safely processed allowing the trapped energy to leave our body.
What exactly is considered a traumatic experience?
Trauma takes many shapes and forms and what’s traumatising for one person might not be experienced as traumatic by the other. Some of the examples of potentially traumatising events include: relationship break-up, toxic work environment, natural disaster, emotional neglect and betrayal of trust.
Effects of trauma
Traumatic experiences and high levels of distress alter our brain and body's response system, making us hypervigilant as we anticipate the next threat. Intense fear triggered by a perceived threat associated with feelings of helplessness can lead to sustained hyperactivity of the SNS. It means that the effects of trauma can linger for weeks, months or even years after ‘the threat’ happened. In other words, the past may feel very much alive while the present may feel perpetually unsafe.
How does it happen?
After being exposed to a stressful event (one or multiple events and/or chronic stress), the body’s trauma response (the 4 Fs of trauma - ‘fight, flight, freeze or fawn’) is activated. When the nervous system is pushed beyond its ability to self-regulate (i.e. is unable to cope with the stressor), the SNS starts to dominate over the PNS. Because the energy is not metabolised and released, it remains trapped in the body and from its perspective it is still under threat. The sympathetic nervous system remains in overdrive, which results in experiencing a variety of unpleasant symptoms, such as heart palpitations, restlessness, dry mouth, anxiety, panic attacks, breathlessness, high blood pressure, an inability to relax and more. We get stuck in stress response and operate from that level (as default) seeing threats in non-threatening situations. It is worth-mentioning that an overactivity of the sympathetic nervous system can be barely perceptible or incredibly debilitating.
Living in the survival mode
There are physical, emotional and social symptoms of a chronically dysregulated nervous system that impact everyday functioning and quality of life. They can include migraines, teeth grinding, insomnia, digestion issues, poor concentration, low self-esteem, toxic shame, self-blame, feeling numb, social anxiety, irritability, attachment issues and so on. Traumatic memories are often minimised (e.g. emotional neglect often minimised as it’s not ‘as bad as’ physical abuse) or difficult to access due to defences we had to create to survive.
My clients tend to describe their chronic stress response as feeling ‘on edge’ most of the time without any apparent reason. Their stress tolerance is low and daily stressors might feel overwhelming, while the ability to properly rest is impaired. Frequently, they struggle with the feeling of being a failure, as nothing seems to help them. Affirmations - check, journaling - check, counselling - check, medications - check. Even though they have learned many skills and strategies, changed their lifestyle and even completed work around the unconscious, their bodies keep dictating how they feel and sabotage their progress. Somatic work and honouring the body-mind connection allows them to access the places they wouldn’t be able to arrive at without ‘communicating with their bodies’, thereby breaking the ‘curse’ of being stuck in the same vicious cycle despite their genuine efforts.
Human experiences are imprinted in our bodies.
The intellect doesn’t control the central nervous system. That is why despite making efforts we might find ourselves stuck in the same patterns of behaving and relating.
Unresolved trauma can convert into trapped energy that presents itself as a trauma response. Unprocessed and unintegrated trauma can significantly affect you even years after the danger has passed.
A holistic approach to healing trauma takes into consideration its complexity and multifaceted nature, where psychological, emotional, somatic and spiritual aspects of trauma are taken into consideration.
You can rebalance your nervous system by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system more, thereby making it more resistant to stress.
Read more about practical steps you can take to regulate your nervous system and bring joy and peace back to your life in my article "How to regulate an overactive nervous system".
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this article.
If you’d like to heal from trauma and learn how to manage stress with the support of a trusted professional, I can help. Together we can explore different techniques to enable you to better understand yourself, manage your triggers and befriend your own body so you can experience healing on all levels.
Love & light,
Holistic Transformative Therapy
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