Trauma is a mental injury, not a mental illness. But when that stress becomes chronic, it takes root in your body.
In the last post we talked about how stress hurts your body. In this post you’ll learn how trauma gets trapped in your body. We’re going to talk about ACEs and crocodiles and how Holocaust survivors passed down anxious genes to their kids. You’ll learn why you feel stuck in chronic stress. And in the next post, you’ll learn what to do about it.
Research shows that people who experience trauma or abuse have physical and emotional illness at much higher rates for the rest of their lives. According to the CDC, “Toxic stress from [trauma] can change brain development and affect how the body responds to stress.”
Trauma leads to a higher prevalence of depression, high blood pressure, asthma, cancer, diabetes, heart disease. It leads to higher rates of substance abuse and early death. People who experience trauma are more likely to have autoimmune disorders, chronic pain, and other chronic conditions.
Trauma is incredibly common. One out of eight kids grow up in a home where their parents fight. One out of three women and one out of five men have been sexually assaulted. Poverty, racism, and natural disasters can all trigger that trauma response.
But trauma doesn’t have to be some extreme event. Any situation where you feel overwhelmed and unsafe can trigger a trauma response.
Trauma in the Nervous System
At its essence, trauma is in the nervous system. When your brain perceives a threat, like a crocodile, it turns on the self-protective fight-or-flight response.
This is the sympathetic response in your autonomic nervous system. You move from a state of safety to activation — fighting off an attacker, running away, defending and protecting yourself. Your nervous system triggers a massive physiological response, pumping out adrenaline to jolt your muscles into action and the stress hormone cortisol to increase blood sugar to power your intense movement.
But cortisol also turns off non-immediately essential functions like your immune system, your digestion, and healing and repairing systems in your body.
When a threat is too overwhelming, when your brain subconsciously interprets a threat as too dangerous to fight off or too powerful to escape, it then triggers an even deeper survival response: the freeze response. This nervous system reaction makes your muscles lock up. You can’t speak, you can’t move, you feel numb, you may dissociate or detach from your body.
Freezing can help you hide, it makes you appear dead to an attacker. It can protect you by showing that you are not a threat. Fighting back might antagonize your attacker and put you into more danger. The numbing and dissociative response protects you from the pain of the situation.
So the fight/flight/freeze responses are all adaptive, functional, helpful, short-term survival responses in your body. You experience physical changes in your body when faced with a perceived threat.
We humans have this ability to resolve trauma in our bodies. One of the ways we can trigger that parasympathetic response is through connection and safety.
A little boy who gets hurt on his bicycle but then is swept up and comforted by his father learns that he can process through and resolve his fear and pain with safety and connection. Those stress hormones are replaced with connection hormones, the nervous system re-regulates, the parasympathetic response kicks on, his body starts to heal.
A little boy who is beaten by his father lives in fear. He learns that the world isn’t safe, that it’s not predictable, that there’s no escape and he’s in constant danger, and his nervous system gets stuck in the FFF response for days, weeks, years. He’s in a chronic state of survival.
And that chronic state of stress and fear basically sets the body’s default mode as one of high alert. It’s like the brain says, “Keep that FFF response on at all times or else something bad could happen.” Like muscles that get used over and over in a workout, the sympathetic response becomes habitual and stronger.
The boy may be more quick to anger (fight response), he may be more sensitive to signs of danger and leave the home or hide in his room (flight). And these are all adaptive. They help him survive his abusive environment. But they also leave him tense.
Maybe he gets stomach problems or can’t sleep well. And being stuck in FFF probably gets in the way of his ability to function at school. He can’t concentrate, he gets into fights or withdraws. When stress becomes chronic, it interferes with everything.
Trauma and Your Body’s Stress Thermostat
Trauma basically sets your body’s threat thermostat higher. So imagine someone who has nearly died of hypothermia. They go home and set their thermostat to 80 degrees. Anytime the temperature dips to 79 degrees, the thermostat senses that the house is cooling off and kicks on the furnace.
Someone who has experienced trauma has a higher sensitivity to threats. Their anxiety thermostat is set high. They’ll be hypervigilant, jumpy. They’ll be quick to assume that others are attacking them, or they’ll feel anxious and nervous all the time. They’ll see danger everywhere.
Their experiences have set their nervous system to pay more attention to things that might possibly be dangerous.
Again, this is functional. Let’s say you get bitten badly by a dog as a child. You learn that dogs are dangerous. When you see a dog, you’re more sensitive to that dog as a threat, and you avoid the dog — and you’re less likely to get bitten again.
Or someone who has been fired for unfair reasons, they may see the next performance review as a threat to their job, even though their new boss is kind.
Trauma Sensitivity Pros and Cons
The pros of a higher thermostat, a higher sensitivity to a perceived threat, is that it makes you more likely to avoid things that might be dangerous.
Imagine our ancestors living in a dangerous natural environment. Let’s say there was a village by a river, and there were crocodiles in the river.
The people who never ever worried about crocodiles, the people who never checked for crocodiles in the water, were more likely to get eaten by a crocodile.
And the people who saw their neighbor get eaten by a crocodile were more likely to worry more and to be more jumpy when they saw the water stir. They were more likely to survive to make babies and pass their anxious genes down to us. So our ancestors most likely passed down anxious genes to us.
Anxiety Genes in Holocaust Descendants
There are some fascinating studies that show that Jews from Germany who survived the Holocaust actually passed down anxious genes to their descendants at higher levels than the average population.
And if you think about it, this makes great evolutionary sense. If another Holocaust were to occur, the people with a higher sensitivity to anxiety might be more likely to leave the country earlier in the timeline, when the borders were still open. Being more sensitive to a threat made them more likely to survive a horrific event.
Crocodiles and Our Ancestors
But anxiety comes with a cost. The people who worried excessively about crocodiles or were so traumatized by crocodiles that they wouldn’t go to the river to get water, or they were extra jumpy so they always spilled their water and broke their jug every time a frog jumped, they also were at a disadvantage.
Their fear thermostat was set so high that it interfered with their ability to get water. They might die of thirst or spend so much time walking 10 miles away to get more water that they didn’t have time to gather food or make babies, so their survival was also under threat. Being stuck in a trauma response is exhausting.
When your body’s natural adaptive response to threats gets too strong, that can interfere with your ability to live a fulfilling life. The descendants of these Holocaust survivors, while living in the United States over the next 60 years in relative safety, experienced a significantly higher degree of anxiety. And this can interfere with their relationships, their work, and their happiness.
Research Into ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences)
So what it boils down to is trauma impacts the body on a physiological level. And when that thermostat gets set higher, it can make your house too hot and wear out your furnace.
And if you look at how trauma works, it all makes sense. That FFF response makes your heart beat faster, it makes your blood pressure rise, it messes with your blood sugar, it turns off your immune system.
It’s basically as if your furnace was running all the time. The parts would wear out. You wouldn’t have time for it to cool down or to perform maintenance. And so it is with someone who has experienced trauma. Their FFF response is kicked on very easily, and it stays on for a long time.
People who have experienced trauma often develop autoimmune disorders, chronic pain, and other chronic conditions. It exhausts the body and prevents the body from healing and making repairs.
The good news is that we can reset that thermostat by retraining the body’s response.
Your body has a natural counterbalancing response to the FFF response. It’s the parasympathetic response. It slows breathing, it slows your heart rate, it turns on digestion, and it allows the immune system to do its work of healing and repairing.
The parasympathetic response kicks on when your brain perceives safety, and it clears out those stress chemicals. Just like the FFF response can become ingrained into a habitual response in your body, the rest-and-digest response can also become a trained reaction. As an adult you can learn to turn that response on. You can learn to heal the impacts of trauma on the body.
The more we learn about trauma, the more hope I have about our abilities to treat it. But more details on that in the next video.