How The Body Holds Onto Trauma

Updated: May 25

"Trauma robs you of the feeling that you are in charge of yourself." - Bessell Van Der Kolk, M.D.

People who have experienced trauma have psychological and physical symptoms that last far beyond the event. The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. uses recent scientific studies to show how trauma changes the body and the brain limiting the sufferer's ability to experience pleasure, engage with others, use self-control, and trust. They are kept in a perpetual state of fight or flight impacting their health and their relationships.


The Long-term Impacts of Trauma
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Trauma is more common than you might think. Approximately 5 out of every 10 women and 6 out of every 10 men will experience some form of trauma in their life. (How Common Is PTSD in Adults? (n.d.). U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs).

The Body Keeps the Score; explains how traumatic events impact people well after the experience through triggers and flashbacks that cause people to relive the mental and physical experiences of the actual event.


The author explains that non-traumatic memories fade and change, while traumatic memories are vivid, unchanging, and easily triggered. Van Der Kolk demonstrates the difference between these two memories. When people recall important non-traumatic events like their wedding day or the birth of a child, they speak about their feelings and emotions but not about detailed descriptions of what someone's hair looked like or the cologne someone was wearing. Whereas when people describe traumatic events, they can recall very vivid details about the people and surroundings of the experience. The author gives the example of a woman who had been raped and how the scent of alcohol triggered the memory of the event, which led her to stop attending parties.


In addition to reliving traumatic experiences, Van Der Kolk, M.D. says that when people are re-experiencing these events, the parts of the brain that control their rational thought process and their ability to speak are shut down. They also release higher stress hormone levels than people who have not experienced trauma, which has long-term health implications for vulnerable systems within an individual's body.


According to the Mayo Clinic (Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) - Symptoms and causes. (2018, July 6). Mayo Clinic), people who suffer from trauma have negative changes to their thinking and their mood. Symptoms include:


  • Negative thoughts about themselves and others

  • Hopelessness about the future

  • Memory problems

  • Difficulty maintaining close relationships

  • Feeling detached from family and friends

  • Lack of interest in activities they once enjoyed

  • Difficulty experiencing positive emotions

  • Feeling emotionally numb

The bottom line is that traumatic experiences stay with you manifesting in your body, mind, and emotions impacting your life experiences. So how do people learn to live with it? Van Der Kolk, M.D. suggests the following treatment and healing practices.


  • EMDR Treatments - eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. This treatment allows patients to integrate their traumatic memories, restoring a sense of control over their minds and bodies.

  • Yoga - offers people a safe way to explore and reprogram the connection between their mind and body.

  • Mindfulness - maintaining a conscious awareness of your body and your emotions helps to heal from the traumatic experience.

  • Support Network - having a support system of people to turn to for help is critical in the healing process.

  • Neurofeedback Treatments - allow traumatized people to re-wire their brains to support the production of alpha waves helping them relax and keep calm.

Trauma can happen to anyone. Being aware of its long-term effects and utilizing the healing resources available make all the difference between living with the negative mental, emotional and physical impacts and learning to accept, cope and recover from traumatic events and reclaim your life.

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