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Unresolved Trauma: Its Physical and Emotional Effects on The Human Body

By, Luuk L. Westerhof, MSc


Introduction

The term “trauma” is often used to describe a deeply distressing or disturbing event. Such an event may be physical, emotional, psychological, or even spiritual. While most people will experience some form of trauma in their lifetime, some events are more traumatic than others.

Particularly traumatizing events can leave us feeling helpless, alone, and afraid. If we don’t have the support, we need to process these feelings, they can become trapped in our bodies and manifest as physical and emotional problems.

In this blog, I will explore the physical and emotional effects of unresolved trauma on the human body. I will also discuss some of how we can begin to heal.


What is Trauma?

Trauma can be defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing event. Trauma is what happens inside you due to what has happened to you (Robert F. Anda et al.; R. F. Anda et al., 2002; Beutler, Felitti, Ho, & Gelbart, 2002; Dube, Anda, Felitti, Edwards, & Croft, 2002; Felitti, 2002; Felitti et al., 1998; Mate, 2019b; Porges, 2011). It can involve anything from the death of a family member to physical or sexual assault to living in a war-torn area. Trauma can also arise from experiences that leave us feeling helpless and powerless (Levine, 1997). Trauma can be acute, or it can be chronic, as in the case of complex trauma.



The Effect of Trauma on the Body

When we are exposed to a traumatic event, our bodies go into a state of fight-or-flight (Bremers, van Laarhoven, van der Kolk, de Wilt, & van Goor, 2013; Herman & Van der Kolk; Levine, 1997; Porges, 2011; Simon & Porges, 2012; Van der Kolk, 2015). Our heart rate and blood pressure spike, cortisol levels increase, and we start to feel on edge. This is a response that can be lifesaving in moments of acute danger. However, if the trauma is not resolved and we remain in a state of fight-or-flight for an extended period, it can have a detrimental effect on our physical health. We might experience shortness of breath, chest pain, panic attacks, headaches, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, digestive problems, or frequent episodes of crying. We may experience problems with our sleep and feel unable to relax. The body can also shut down, leaving a person feeling numb and unable to feel pleasure.


The Effect of Trauma on the Emotions

When a traumatic event is unresolved, it can have a profound effect on a person’s emotional state (Badenoch, 2018; Levine, 2017; Mate, 2019a, 2019b). We might feel overwhelmed, scared, helpless, and angry. We may feel disconnected from ourselves, from others, and the world (Hari, 2018; Mate, 2019b). It can also lead to feelings of guilt and shame. We may start to avoid certain activities or places because they remind us of the trauma.


Coping with Unresolved Trauma

When it comes to coping with unresolved trauma, it is important to remember that it is a gradual process. It is not possible to simply push away the painful memories and emotions that come with it. Instead, we must be patient and kind to ourselves and take things one step at a time. Seeking professional help is a great first step. A trained therapist can provide a safe and supportive environment to talk about the traumatic event and to work through any difficult emotions that may be associated with it. They will also be able to guide how to create a healthier mind and body through therapies such as mindfulness, and relaxation techniques.



Conclusion

Unresolved trauma can have a detrimental effect on both our physical and emotional health. It is important to remember that healing from trauma is not a quick process and that it is ok to take things one step at a time. Help is available for those who may be struggling with the effects of unresolved trauma. With the right support, we can begin to heal and find peace within ourselves.


References

Anda, R. F., Felitti, V. J., Tendall, M., Van der Kolk, B. A., Redding, C. A., & Kanopy (Firm). The ACE study.

Anda, R. F., Whitfield, C. L., Felitti, V. J., Chapman, D., Edwards, V. J., Dube, S. R., & Williamson, D. F. (2002). Adverse childhood experiences, alcoholic parents, and later risk of alcoholism and depression. Psychiatr Serv, 53(8), 1001-1009. doi:10.1176/appi.ps.53.8.1001

Badenoch, B. (2018). The heart of trauma : healing the embodied brain in the context of relationships. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Beutler, E., Felitti, V., Ho, N. J., & Gelbart, T. (2002). Relationship of body iron stores to levels of serum ferritin, serum iron, unsaturated iron binding capacity and transferrin saturation in patients with iron storage disease. Acta Haematol, 107(3), 145-149. doi:10.1159/000057632

Bremers, A. J., van Laarhoven, K. J., van der Kolk, B. M., de Wilt, J. H., & van Goor, H. (2013). Transanal endoscopic microsurgery approach for rectal stump resection as an alternative to transperitoneal stump resection. Br J Surg, 100(4), 568-571. doi:10.1002/bjs.9005

Dube, S. R., Anda, R. F., Felitti, V. J., Edwards, V. J., & Croft, J. B. (2002). Adverse childhood experiences and personal alcohol abuse as an adult. Addict Behav, 27(5), 713-725. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12201379

Felitti, V. J. (2002). [The relationship of adverse childhood experiences to adult health: Turning gold into lead]. Z Psychosom Med Psychother, 48(4), 359-369. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12407494

Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., . . . Marks, J. S. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. Am J Prev Med, 14(4), 245-258. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9635069

Hari, J. (2018). Lost connections : Why you are depressed and how to find hope. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Herman, J. L., & Van der Kolk, B. A. The impact of early life trauma.

Levine, P. A. (1997). Waking the tiger : healing trauma through the body. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books.

Levine, P. A. (2017). Traume og hukommelse : hjerne og krop i en søgen efter den levende fortid : en praktisk vejledning i at forstå og arbejde med traumatiske erindringer (1. udgave. ed.). Kbh.: Hans Reitzel.

Mate, G. (2019a). Scattered minds : the origins and healing of attention deficit disorder. London: Ebury Digital.

Mate, G. (2019b). When the body says no : the cost of hidden stress. London: Vermilion.

Porges, S. W. (2011). The polyvagal theory : neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation. New York ; London: W.W. Norton.

Simon, R., & Porges, S. W. (2012). Understanding polyvagal theory : emotion, attachment and self-regulation [two-dimensional moving image]Counseling and therapy in video, volume 3 (pp. 60 min.). Retrieved from https://login.revproxy.brown.edu/login?url=http://www.aspresolver.com/aspresolver.asp?CTIV;2287050 Access online version; access limited to Brown University users

Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score : mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma. Uk: Penguin Books.


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