Trauma & Recovery: How Trauma Affects the Body

June 23, 2023

The same way it takes time for a person to recover from an injury, it can take time for individuals to recover from traumatic experiences. Yet even after we might classify ourselves as “fully recovered,” our bodies sometimes still haven’t healed—some people are physically altered permanently, and others only temporarily, but either way, the physical effects of trauma often stay long after the mental effects have worn off.

In his appropriately-named book The Body Keeps the Score and interviews he’s given since it’s publication,trauma psychologist Bessel van der Kolk illustrates some of the principles of this phenomenon: “…this is not about something you think or something you figure out,” he said to Krista Tippett of On Being. “This is about your body, your organism having been reset to interpret the world as a terrifying place, and yourself as being unsafe… The sense of goodness and safety disappears out of your body, basically.”

In other words, traumatic events—especially ones that occur at the hands of other people and involve the body—have a vast capability of reworking people’s physical planes of existence. It can become significantly harder to relax; spend time alone with the body, like in a bath; feel safe in certain positions; wear certain clothes; and do certain tasks, all of which are often very necessary to a healthy existence. 

There are also ways in which the body holds our trauma that we’re much less likely to recognize. A good example of this is the trauma of continuous abuse—little by little, someone going through steady abuse is likely to become more tense and feel much less calm than the average person. However, since this builds so gradually, it’s uncommon for the person to notice that they’re feeling physically different until the tension is out of control and they’re in a constant state of tight muscles, rigid posture, and clenched jaws.

Some people are also prone to physical maladies or phenomena that are directly related to trauma, though they may not know it. Untreated trauma can in fact cause all sorts of physical problems, like headaches and back pain, as well as potentially chronic conditions like insomnia, IBS, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Chronic pain is also surprisingly common in people with considerable trauma: according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, between 15 and 35 percent of people with chronic pain also have PTSD.

Whether or not an individual develops physical problems related to trauma can be a matter of whether or not they seek  treatment—related physical issues (and mental issues) aren’t inevitable. Proper treatment involves different kinds of interventions for different people, but on the whole relates to viewing the trauma through a new lens and making peace with the past over time. Successful treatment for trauma can be hard, but is possible.

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