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When Trauma Gets Stuck in the Body

How do we heal?

People living with residual trauma are continually getting ready for the next attack or life-altering event. When someone is preoccupied with a real or imagined threat, the resulting fear, rage, or disappointment will be reflected in the body.

Research shows that trauma survivors suffer more illnesses. For example, the Adverse Childhood Experience Study found that survivors of childhood trauma are some 5,000 percent more likely to use drugs, attempt suicide, and suffer an eating disorder. Muscle tension, disease, and injury are physical manifestations of this preoccupation.

Trauma has such a severe impact because of the way it affects, and ultimately, rewires the brain. When the brain goes into stress or is stuck in stress, it leads to physical changes and a complicated ripple of life-altering symptoms.

In the animal world, animals “shake off” the freeze response caused by a life threat. When animals suffer trauma, it has been documented that they will literally shake it off, which helps the animal discharge the energy of the traumatic event. I watch my dog Bentley, a rescue who has childhood trauma, do this often as he gets triggered by brightly lit neon signs, overhead scaffolding, awnings, and hats and sunglasses on men with uniforms. He shakes it off and I encourage it by saying, "Shake it off Boo, shake it off!"

The term “shaking like a leaf” is commonly used to describe a reaction to a frightening situation. Shaking or trembling, which comes from the limbic brain (the part of the brain that holds emotions), sends a signal that the danger has passed and that the fight-or-flight system can turn off. They are literally finishing the nervous system response to release the traumatic experience from the body.

Animals often die if they are unable to shake off the trauma, but in humans, it may evolve into mental or physical illness. Humans also shake off trauma, but for some, the shake off response isn’t available thus the trauma is held in the body.

The problem comes when something prevents the nervous system from completing its natural, survival-based response, such as being held down, held against your will, or being immobilized (duty requirement in the military or via medication from an unwitting medical attendant) for example. In these cases, the experience can become stored in the body, resulting in mental or physical illness or both — and can lead to a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The issues get lodged in our tissues and our brains as well.

After a traumatic event, one that represents a threat to personal safety, the brain and body are transformed. The threat evokes a physical and emotional reaction in the person experiencing the event, which activates our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)—also known as fight or flight, a necessary and important survival response.

After trauma, the SNS remains activated, keeping the body and mind on high alert. The brain and nervous system become stuck in trauma and are rewired in a way that makes healing a challenge. According to the late neuroscientist Paul MacLean, the brain is made up of three parts, known as The Triune Brain Model:

  • Reptilian (brain stem): responsible for survival instincts and autonomic body processes.
  • Mammalian (limbic, midbrain): processes emotions and conveys sensory relays.
  • Neo-mammalian (cortex, forebrain): controls cognitive processing, decision-making, learning, memory, and inhibitory functions.

The reptilian brain is activated during trauma and alerts the body to react and go into survival mode. This is when the SNS prepares for fight or flight. In a non-threatening situation, the brain and body are able to alleviate this reaction and shift back to its normal functioning, also known as “top-down” control, to how our brains make use of information that has already been brought into the brain by one or more of the sensory systems. Top-down processing is a cognitive process that initiates with our thoughts, which then flow down to lower-level functions, such as the senses. Perception is driven by cognition. Your brain applies what it knows and what expects to perceive and fills in the blanks.

With trauma, however, the stress and hormones activated in the brain are stuck in survival and do not restore. The reptilian brain remains primed for threat and keeps the survivor in its reactive state, ultimately effecting other brain structures to react accordingly. When your brain is in constant stress mode, it trickles down and is normalized into the physical body thus normalizing the behavior. And if the brain does not reset, some survivors develop post-traumatic stress disorder.

There are biological and chemical changes that occur in the brain, which can literally shift your life, well-being, and reality as you know it, through the post-traumatic brain. Symptoms, including intrusive, dissociation, numbing, and arousal (which we will dive deeper into in a bit) then are exhibited.

It is jolting when all of a sudden your life has been impacted by trauma. It may feel like your reality and the person you once were is not the person you are after trauma. Survivors of trauma often feel out of control of their self, their mind, and their body. This can lead to an onslaught of challenges and symptoms that may be utterly overwhelming to handle on your own or without the proper tools to help. When the brain dysregulates, the following chemical imbalances happen:

Overstimulated amygdala: An almond-shaped mass located deep in the brain, the amygdala is responsible for survival-related threat identification, plus tagging memories with emotion. After trauma, the amygdala can get caught up in a highly alert and activated loop during which it looks for and perceives threats everywhere.

Underactive hippocampus: An increase in the stress hormone glucocorticoid kills cells in the hippocampus, which renders it less effective in making synaptic connections necessary for memory consolidation. This interruption keeps both the body and mind stimulated in reactive mode as neither element receives the message that the threat has transformed into the past tense.

Ineffective variability: The constant elevation of stress hormones interferes with the body’s ability to regulate itself. The sympathetic nervous system remains highly activated leading to fatigue of the body and many of its systems, most notably the adrenal.

When the brain deals with trauma in this matter, sometimes intense symptoms will develop.

GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid)

Gaba acts as a calming agent produced by the brain. When the body is stressed, GABA levels are lowered and adrenaline is increased. It’s important to the mind and body that GABA is regulated so that your nervous system is calm.

A person living with unresolved trauma can re-experience their trauma in a variety of ways. For example, nightmares or distressing dreams can cause a person to relive the experience. Flashbacks make a person act or feel as if the trauma is recurring again. When a person is reminded of the traumatic event, they can experience emotional and physical upset.

So as an example, an Iraqi vet may notice that their heart is racing (which would be physiological reactivity) or that they feel fearful (which would be emotional reactivity) when they hear a story on the news about the war. This intrudes on the present moment and the survivor’s current state, bringing with it the anxiety and stress of the trauma.


Referenced in Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga by Emerson, et al.

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