The Lesser Known Physical Symptoms of Complex PTSD
“You’ve got past trauma stored up in your body, and even your mind may not be completely aware of it all.”
I looked back at the behavioral health technician with a mixture of shock and grief. These were the words she was communicating to me to help explain why I was back at the emergency room again. This was apparently the reason I had been frozen stuck to my couch a dozen times that weekend, with no clue as to why my limbs had randomly decided to stop moving properly.
As my husband and I drove home from the hospital, tears filled my eyes and I placed my tired head in my hands. Yet again, the complex PTSD I had been diagnosed with back in 2018 was invading my life in the messiest and most confusing of ways. I had basically gotten used to the sporadic panic attacks that wreaked havoc on my nervous system. I’d made peace with the years of trauma-induced self-harm I’d been unconsciously engaging in. I was even becoming quite fond of the weekly therapy sessions I’m privileged to have access to, as uncomfortable and emotionally taxing as they are to show up for.
But nothing, not a damn thing, could have prepared me for the surprising physical symptoms of my disorder that revealed themselves to me last year. And more importantly, no one even thought to try.
Back in early 2019, my body started shaking uncontrollably whenever I was in severe distress. No matter what I did, I couldn’t stop the movement from taking up my entire personal space and running its natural course. My arms would spastically flail about in the air, my mouth would forcibly shape into a frown, my eyelids would blink at warp speed, and my legs would not stop shaking. As you can imagine, this was absolutely terrifying to experience.
When one particularly volatile series of muscle tremors flooded my body last fall and then remained active for two painful hours, I went to the emergency room and followed up with my first ever visit to a psychiatrist. Through counseling, I was diagnosed with suicidal ideation, which I had been quietly struggling with ever since discovering that I’d been unknowingly living with a trauma-based mental health disorder for much of my life. A plan was made to help me get on the track of recovery, and it included antidepressants and more ongoing therapy. To my great relief, the panic attacks largely subsided and my muscle spasms became less frequent as the medication made its way through my system. My treatment was working, and I felt like I could finally breathe again.
When I had that initial visit with my doctor, he explained that the involuntary shaking I’d been experiencing was called somatization, which is essentially what happens when a mental state transmutes into a physical one. Basically, my C-PTSD was manifesting in physical responses, and it was a lesser known but completely expected side effect of trauma recovery and healing. This realization floored me, as I was left wondering why the hell I’d never learned about every potential aspect of my condition before. I was also curious to know if anyone around me would ever be able to relate to what I was going through.
Things were becoming progressively easier to manage after my ER visit, and I started feeling hope that maybe I was just moving through a passing phase in my disorder. That is, until COVID-19 spread across our country and my family was placed on lockdown at home. Every possible trauma trigger was showing back up in my life because my nervous system was totally shot to shit. I was home 24/7 with my kids, couldn’t manage the time or energy for my job, felt increasingly afraid to go outside, and ended up diving right back down into a well of complex emotions, thought patterns, and harmful coping behaviors.
And that’s when the temporary paralysis began taking over my life.
I was lying down on my couch one evening and zoning out on my phone when I suddenly noticed that I couldn’t lift myself back to standing. I couldn’t even wriggle out of the position I was in. My body was frozen, my mind was overcome with panic, and the only thing that seemed to get me out of it all was my husband Matt. He was the one who lifted up my legs and moved them mechanically around while he cracked way too many fucking jokes that had my paralyzed face managing a tiny grin. Once he helped me up to standing, I had to go through another round of physical reminders and cues that I can only liken to a car being given a jump start. It felt as if I had completely forgotten how to walk on a few occasions, with Matt gently explaining step by step how to place one foot in front of the other and gain momentum.
After a second trip to the ER to figure out what the hell was going on, my psychiatrist prescribed me anti-seizure medication that relaxed my body into movement again. A couple months passed without a single bout of temporary paralysis. And then it hit again like a ton of bricks. For ten straight days, every single part of me would freeze up, and I’d need a lot of support to spring back into action. On a few occasions, I lost the ability to produce words and could only manage to slowly stutter my way back into speaking. In traditionally anxious mom fashion, I googled the shit out of my symptoms to find out if something worse was going on with me. Three hours later, all I had were a few links to articles that explained trauma-based somatization in dense medical jargon. I couldn’t find a single resource that spoke to what I was experiencing in an easily digestible way.
I called my doctor to arrange a last-minute session. Once I rattled off everything I could think of to give him the full picture of what was happening to me, my psychiatrist shared a few things that completely blew my mind. He told me that the market for trauma-based mental health disorder solutions is very small, mostly because a lot of people don’t realize they have one or they feel too stigmatized to reveal the past events of abuse, assault, or neglect that could lead to a proper diagnosis. Because of this, many of us just don’t know that you can live with regular physical symptoms that are somatic manifestations of a disorder that primarily impacts the brain and nervous system. Because my paralysis and spasms weren’t components of a more traditionally diagnosable illness or disease, getting clarity through medical scans most likely wouldn’t be possible.
Bottom line, my body was finally releasing years of painful trauma and was doing so without an ounce of concern about appearances.
Everything makes sense now that I know what I know. But at the time, I was majorly ticked off and confused. How could I be the only one I knew who uncontrollably shook or froze up because childhood trauma had been laying dormant in my body? And why did it take so damn long to have someone reveal the full scope of my disorder? If I had gained some understanding of how irregular, but totally natural, my symptoms could potentially be, it may have helped ease my mind as I encountered each one. And it almost certainly would have helped me feel more aware of my condition, rather than grasping around in the dark for reasons why I was struggling.
I don’t fault my therapists or doctors for waiting to acknowledge the physical symptoms of my mental health disorder until I was actually experiencing them. They’ve simply been responding to the individual demands of those in their care, and the majority of people with conditions like mine seem not to feel safe or conscious enough to visit a doctor.
I honestly think that the bulk of the responsibility falls on a culture that treats our mental health as somehow less important and valid than our physical well being. In an ideal world, these issues would be prioritized, with more funding and efforts going towards the necessary resources and solutions to recognizing and treating trauma-based disorders. This is especially critical in areas where behavioral health access is all but nonexistent.
We need to do better, so that we can know better. And it starts with the public and widespread acknowledgement of the long-term, detrimental impact that abuse and trauma can have on a human being.
We don’t yet live in this world that I envision, but I hope that sharing my personal story can be a part of the change I wish to see around me.
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