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Here's How Trauma Affects the Body and How You can Prevent Long-Term Impacts

By Pam Dewey • trauma, trauma and the body, trauma effects, trauma impact, trauma triggers, how trauma affects the body, toxic stress, toxic stress and trauma, historical trauma, people of color and trauma, historical trauma for people of color, trigger warning • February 17, 2022

Stressful situations happen every day, ranging from minor to major events. People get stressed when they have a big project due at work or are planning a get-together. People also face major stressors like losing a loved one, having mental health issues, insecure housing or even abuse.

When you experience stress, you may feel worried and upset, but you might not realize that it also impacts how your body functions. A body responds to stress by increasing blood pressure, heart rate, breathing and blood flow to muscles. Stress also slows down less-urgent body functions that handle digestion, growth and parts of the immune system. This helps individuals react quickly in a stressful situation — the idea of fight or flight.

Trauma can cause toxic stress

But when people experience excessive or prolonged stress — known as toxic stress — their bodies are continuously reacting with these fight or flight responses. That means their bodies may be in a constant state of arousal. According to Dr. Christine Gibson in a USA Today article, “Some may have a fight-or-flight type of response, which may include muscle tension, heart-pounding and sweating because their body ‘believes it needs to activate.’ Others maybe experience a freeze response, which can look like someone who struggles to move or get out of bed.”

Toxic stress can be caused by a situation where people experience trauma over and over again, like abuse or homelessness. And even when the situation ends, a person’s body may still react with these physiological responses. Children’s brain development can be disrupted by the physical reaction of fight or flight response. It can also weaken people’s immune systems and increase their lifetime risk for stress-related health concerns like heart disease, diabetes, substance abuse and depression.

Trauma can be passed down

For people who have experienced historical trauma, like Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) in the U.S., a trauma response can be particularly confusing and harmful. Historical trauma is passed down through the generations, and even if a person of color doesn’t personally experience that trauma, their body can still be affected. In his e-course, therapist and trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem Menakem says that people’s bodies may “remember” trauma, even if their brains don’t. That can result in hypervigilance, rage, sleep issues, disassociation and depression. Small issues may suddenly snowball into major issues, or BIPOC may find themselves completely shutting down or “collapsing” as a response to their historical trauma.

Triggers can be external and internal

You’ve probably heard of trigger warnings. Reading or viewing certain content can trigger people who have experienced a similar type of trauma. Even smells or certain sounds can cause a person’s trauma response. But triggers can also exist within a person’s body.

“So a lot of times survivors will learn ways to disconnect from their body, so they don't 'bump into' memories by moving a certain way or taking a certain kind of breath,” states the USA Today article.

Preventing long-term trauma impacts

Whether the person experiencing trauma is a child, teen or adult, we know that early intervention helps prevent the long-term impacts of trauma. As previously mentioned, toxic stress caused by trauma can weaken people’s immune systems and increase their lifetime risk for stress-related health concerns like heart disease, diabetes, substance abuse and depression.

Disconnecting from your body is a survival response, but it isn’t a healthy way to continue to manage your trauma. Mindfulness practices, yoga, meditation or other body-focused interventions can help you learn to reconnect to your body. There are even trauma-focused yoga practices.

Menakem also says it’s important to help BIPOC develop context for these types of body reactions. He points out that healing is different for people who’ve been historically traumatized. The volume of hurt they’ve experienced may simply be greater. To heal, they must acknowledge their historical trauma and let out all the bad feelings and trauma.

Various types of therapy can also help people process trauma and learn coping skills. Individuals dealing with historical trauma should reach out to mental healthcare providers who are sensitive to the needs of the BIPOC community.

“Fraser is now taking the needed measures to ensure its staff are providing a culturally and ethically competent service for all of our clients, especially those in the BIPOC community. Fraser recognizes the many challenges facing Black, Indigenous and people of color and is working towards educating and training its staff to deliver a supportive, more responsive approach,” says Jordan Brandt, Fraser mental health professional.

Fraser offers a variety of mental health services, for infants through adults. Some therapies, like Child Parent Psychotherapy (CPP), are specifically geared toward children, ages 0-5, who have experienced trauma.