Emotional Trauma and the Mind-Body Connection

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on November 29, 2018
4 min read

About half of Americans will go through at least one traumatic event in their lives. Afterward, it’s very common to feel jumpy, sleep poorly, and have nightmares and flashbacks.

It’s also normal for your body to react in physical ways, including:

  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach
  • Muscle tension
  • Fatigue

Scientists have explored lots of angles to explain how trauma affects the body. Some have looked at whether the flood of stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine is to blame. Stephen Porges, PhD, of the Kinsey Institute Traumatic Stress Research Consortium at Indiana University, has a different theory.

His theory, the polyvagal theory, suggests that our nervous systems have evolved so that we can feel things like intimacy and safety around others. But if we detect danger, the other, primitive parts of our nervous system kick in -- like the sympathetic nervous system, which controls our “fight or flight” response, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which causes us to shut down and conserve energy.

These systems also control things like digestion and heart rate. So once they spring into action, your body works differently. This could explain why trauma is linked to everything from constipation to fainting.

Trauma is associated with long-term physical health problems, too. Trauma survivors are about three times more likely to deal with irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Paula Schnurr, PhD, professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth, has studied the relationship between traumatic events and health complaints, especially in people with PTSD.

Schnurr, also the executive director of the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, has found that trauma can contribute to chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and rheumatoid arthritis.

“There’s an increase in just about every medical issue over time,” says Bessel van der Kolk, MD, a trauma researcher and author.

But just because you go through trauma doesn’t mean you’ll have health problems. Other factors are at play, like your life experiences, the support you have from loved ones, and your genes.

“The relationship between trauma and medical issues isn’t linear,” van der Kolk says.

Porges agrees.

“When people experience the same traumatic event, some will be fine, while others will be radically changed.”

No matter how you respond to trauma, experts agree that leaning on loved ones is one of the best things you can do to get back to being yourself.

“If you start isolating yourself and stop doing the things you like to do, that makes everything worse,” Schnurr says. “There’s abundant evidence that social support helps.”

Other people can be a source of comfort, an audience to help you talk things through, and they can also be a distraction to help you stop fixating on the event, she says.

Schnurr says the importance of a support system can’t be overstated.

“Don’t shut down and withdraw,” she says.

Psychotherapy can also be helpful, Schnurr says, especially if you’re one of the roughly 8% of Americans diagnosed with PTSD.

“The best medications right now don’t work as well as the best psychotherapies,” she says.

Van der Kolk agrees psychotherapy can be useful, as long as you don’t expect it to be a quick fix and you get the space to talk about what really happened to you.

“It’s giving a voice to the unspeakable,” he says. “Just being able to say ‘this is what happened to me’ has been shown to reduce the need for future doctor’s visits.”

Van der Kolk also agrees that medications aren’t necessarily the best route.

“Trauma is very much about feeling helpless and ashamed. People need to be actively supported so they can take charge of their lives again and restore their power,” he says.

Another powerful way to help heal is to move your body.

It’s about “learning how to feel safe and alive in your body again,” Van der Kolk says, and notes that this could mean anything from yoga to tango dancing to martial arts.

Staying active could also help keep you from dissociating -- the scientific term for feeling disconnected -- which is common in trauma survivors.

Van der Kolk is looking at how the drug MDMA, also known as ecstasy, might help. More than a dozen such studies are in the works.

“The altered state of consciousness gives trauma survivors perspective about what happened to them, and it gives them the courage and self-acceptance to be able to say ‘that was then, this is now,’” he says.

One thing van der Kolk is sure doesn’t work: Encouraging trauma survivors to cheer up and look on the bright side.

“You need to acknowledge the horror of what happened to them,” he says. “Superficial reassurances are completely useless.”