How Your Body Remembers Trauma

by Caila Smith
Originally Published: 
A woman sleeping in a bed curled up.

Trigger warning: child loss

It wasn’t long after my daughter died that I began to notice consistent negative patterns in my health. Whenever it would get close to her birthday or death date, I became sick, or, spontaneously, without incident, I became injured. Sometimes on rainy fall days that resembled the forecast of the day she died, the weather alone would cause me to weep. It still does on occasion, if I’m honest.

But it wasn’t until a therapist friend of mine told me the association between trauma and the body that I ever considered the two might be working against me together.

My daughter’s cause of death was SIDS. I laid her down for bed one night, and by the following day, she was gone. I didn’t have to check for a pulse or see if she was breathing because I knew she did not have a pulse and was not living the moment I found her. I called 911 immediately. But when they told me to begin CPR, I was stunned that I hadn’t thought to do it myself.

We hear a lot about the fight or flight response, but the underrepresented reaction to trauma is one I displayed, which was to freeze. Of course, we all know that the first course of action when someone isn’t breathing is CPR. But at that moment, the thought hadn’t occurred to me. Almost like I didn’t even know until then that it was a possibility. And since then, I’ve noticed this trauma response becoming my default reaction to minor situations that my body perceives as scary or dangerous.

When I peek in on my sleeping children and don’t immediately see their chests rising and falling, I struggle to run to them in the way I want to. Not because I’m slow or because I’m trying to be quiet. Everything in me wants me to sprint without giving much thought to waking them up. The only thing is, my body won’t allow it.

It’s like one of those terrible, awful dreams where someone is chasing you, but your legs have turned to noodles. My body won’t move on until my brain has a chance to play catch up. As if my body is remembering the horrific details of the day my daughter died and is saying, “Stop! We’ve been here before, and it’s too much.”

Most of us know that our brain is responsible for storing away memories, but not all of us are aware that our bodies hold tight to those painful experiences as well. So when we find ourselves in a place where our minds perceive the situation as too stressful or painful to cope with, our body goes into defense mode as a means to seek safety.

The brain’s ability to process trauma shuts down, and our nervous system becomes overwhelmed. As a result, the brain is unable to encode the trauma properly. And when unprocessed trauma goes unrecognized, certain situations and sensory fragments can continue to trip up the survivor’s fight, flight, or freeze response again and again in the long run. Thus, even the most minor situations can cause one’s nervous system to go haywire — the very definition of a trauma trigger.

“Being in a stressful or abusive relationship or work environment is traumatic. So is losing someone you love, having a serious illness, or facing discrimination,” James Gordon, M.D., and author of The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma says. “Sometimes you move through trauma with no residue, but other times your reactions continue long after the threat is over.”

Someone might have difficulty remembering specific details or entire events of their traumatic experience but find themselves reacting to particular situations, sensory occurrences, or people much more rashly than expected for reasons they can’t explain. Because, although the brain might block out traumatic memories as a defense mechanism, it’s important to note that the body remembers.

Whether your trauma nestles itself in your organs, muscles, or connective tissues (yes, really), your trauma will find somewhere to go if left unprocessed. For example, one study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that women whose initial sexual encounters were rape were more likely to suffer from pelvic inflammatory disease and endometriosis later on than those whose first sexual encounters were consensual.

Unprocessed trauma doesn’t disappear when it has no place to go. Sure, your brain might disconnect and temporarily leave you without the lingering effects like flashbacks or mental health issues, but this can wreak havoc on your physical health in the long run.

Trauma survivors live in a perpetual cycle of heightened fear and adrenaline because of the power their trauma holds over them. So finding ways to weaken these reactions with trauma-focused therapies is crucial. Yet, at the same time, seeking out physical healing for our bodies is just as vital to recovery too.

Research shows that exercise can help repair the nervous system and repel energy from “cooped up” trauma. And since trauma does significant damage to every part of the digestive system, dietary restrictions such as limiting inflammatory foods may be helpful for overall health too.

If you’ve been storing trauma in the body and are finding new ways of releasing it, don’t be alarmed if new symptoms come about. You are training your brain to look at a terrible situation from a different light, and it’s never easy — physically or mentally. But it’s always worth it.

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