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Trauma: Pervasive in Society, Pervading the Body

Odds are, seven out of every 10 people reading this have experienced trauma. Psychological trauma can occur following any distressing or life-threatening situation, such as after an accident, divorce, rape, or genocide. According to the CDC, one in five Americans were sexually molested as children and one in four were beaten by a parent to the point of marks being left on their body. After experiencing traumatic events, people often need to cope with extreme emotional issues, ongoing sleep or physical pain, trouble in relationships, and low self-esteem. Nevertheless, conversation about these commonplace tragedies is sparse, particularly because opening up and being vulnerable requires an amount of courage that is atypical in our culture. Aversion to discussing traumatic experiences blocks proper healing, which leads to emotional suppression. Shame—the emotional judgment that oneself is weak, useless, or otherwise of negative worth—combined with social stigma often prevents people from opening up about their stories. When trauma is suppressed enough and consequent shame pervades, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can permeate all major structures of the body, including neural, endocrine, and immune systems. This resets the body’s physiology. Therefore, for the psychological and physical well-being of ourselves, our friends, and our society as a whole, we need to foster a trauma-informed culture.

Traumatic experiences trigger neural physiology to operate in ways counter to human evolutionary adjustments. The amygdala, which essentially acts as the brain’s alarm, controls our fight, flight, or freeze (FFF) instinct while also automatically partially shutting down the conscious parts of the brain. This occurs because if an individual were being attacked, they would need to quickly fight, flight, or freeze without stopping to think. However, if the response to FFF is blocked—for example, if someone were in a sudden car accident or if they were being held down—the brain’s electrical circuits continue to fire stress chemicals. Similarly, if someone cannot FFF because they are trapped in a continuous cycle of trauma, such as domestic abuse, the brain’s electrical circuits again continuously fire stress chemicals. Until the trauma is resolved, the stress chemicals secreted by the body to protect itself keep firing, and the defensive movements and emotional responses are continuously replayed. Therefore, the brain and body are continuously troubled by the effects of the trauma, which leads to comprehensive impairment.

After unresolved trauma, the brain undergoes a fundamental reorganization of the way the mind manages perceptions that can last for decades. A person’s automatic physical and hormonal responses shift to remain hyper-vigilant. The amygdala becomes hyper-aroused to any trigger that is reminiscent of the traumatic experience and sends an instant message to the hypothalamus and brainstem, which activates the body’s stress response to prepare for impending danger through a whole-body response. Such shifts in the brain’s response functions explain the concept of “triggers.” Triggers are reminders of past trauma that can cause a person to feel overwhelming distress and sudden, vivid negative memories. When an individual is triggered, the Broca’s area in the left frontal lobe of the cortex goes “offline,” which makes a person unable to react and respond articulately. This breaking down of the Broca’s area is the same shift that occurs after a stroke. While an individual with PTSD is triggered (for instance, if someone who was traumatized by sexual assault is groped), the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is deactivated. This prevents the amygdala from distinguishing between past and present and prompts intense stress hormones and nervous system responses such as sweating or heart racing. The comprehensive impairments trauma leaves on the mind extend past the brain to the nervous system.

The effect of trauma on the entire nervous system creates tremendous disarray and suffering. When a person has PTSD, their nervous system focuses most of its energy on suppressing the inner chaos caused by the trauma and its havoc, at the expense of living normally. The strain on the nervous system of attempting to maintain control over such intense physiological reactions results in the development of physical ailments such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and many autoimmune diseases. In sum, trauma causes physical damage to the brain and body, which can lead to disease.

In addition to whole-body physical impairment, unresolved trauma devastates emotional wellbeing. Traumatic experiences are defined by terror before, during, and after the event, because trauma often evokes vulnerability, helplessness, loss of control, uncertainty, and even a threat to life. Feelings of guilt, shame, low self-esteem, distrust, and self-blame are common after traumatic experiences. When the nuanced and intense emotions resulting from trauma are not processed but suppressed, all emotions become muted. This results in a numbing effect. When someone becomes emotionally numb due to PTSD, they often do not feel like they are living, but rather feel as though they are observing themselves from a distance or watching themselves live. People often feel a shift in perception—a change from the first-person perspective to that of an overlooker watching a simulation of him or herself performing actions they do not feel. Sometimes, people have difficulty recognizing themselves in the mirror as their personalities appear to dissolve, characterized by blank stares and absent-seeming actions. People often feel numb, unable to feel emotion except for shame and momentary out-of-body rages. People resort to the physical pain of self-harm in order to feel anything at all. Numbing and its statuesque side effects are outward manifestations of the biological freeze reaction. The body feels threatened during a traumatic experience, and if that feeling is never relieved, the body preserves itself by shifting its mammalian brain toward the reptilian brain. When this occurs, the body becomes lizard-like and motionless—regardless of changes in the environment—in response to a potential threat that makes an individual more likely to be re-victimized. These are only a handful of the symptoms of trauma, but the pathophysiological destruction of trauma has wide-reaching consequences.

The onslaught of pathophysiological consequences of unprocessed trauma and PTSD are simply too detrimental to be ignored. Individuals need to be able to process trauma properly and society needs to support people in doing so. Having a good support network constitutes the single most powerful protection against becoming traumatized. Trauma’s persistent destruction on the body is maintained by silence, the block that prevents healing. Trauma’s best antidote is openness and trust. Therefore, for the sake of society, we need to be more open to discussing traumatic experiences.

The 70 percent of people who have experienced trauma are at risk of these consequences unless they are able to heal properly. In order to help each other heal, everyone is responsible for providing physical and emotional safety in the wake of trauma—including safety from feeling shamed, admonished, or judged—and bolstering the individual’s courage to tolerate, face, and process the reality of what happened. The responsibility is on everyone to create a culture in which trauma-shaming cannot persist. To begin, individuals can intervene in the wake of invalidating and ill-informed comments on another’s involuntary biological shifts or emotions, such as the term “snowflake” or jokes about being “#triggered.” Those who identify with this article are courageous for acknowledging their trauma, and they have begun the path toward resetting and healing just by recognition. For the health of the brain, nervous system, and physical body, and for the emotional well-being of 70 percent of people, those who have experienced trauma need to acknowledge it and feel supported.