Trauma and the body – How does trauma affect us? {Part 2}

In Part 1 of this series we explained how trauma is what a challenge that overwhelms our response capacity leaves, and how this creates a split between various parts of ourselves. We also talked about how the responses to face a challenge could be classified into three categories: social engagement, fight or flight or collapse.

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Image from The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.

Today we are going to talk about what are the consequences of trauma on the body-mind. We will go into this with the caveat that it is impossible to exhaust this topic by this media, but what we want to do is to present a general notion of the imprint trauma leaves on us.

The first thing we have to understand is that the effects of trauma are related to the way trauma was created. According to the Triune Brain model proposed by Paul D. MacLean, the brain can be divided into three main parts in regards to their function and developmental stage, as shown in the image below.

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Trauma will affect the most the structures in the body associated with the situation itself. If the failed response was from the Neocortex, trauma at this level will affect mostly the Neocortex functions. This comes with two variants: Firstly, when a person faces a trauma and, say, the fight or flight response failed, they can either get stuck into that response or run away from it. This means that the effect of trauma will be felt on that level, but it will be either with inhibition or excitatory effects. Secondly, this division is not entirely truth, as the brain and the body work as wholes, but its still useful to guide treatment to the most relevant area.

In the table below, you can see what are the structures, functions and associated response to each of this brain parts.

The Triune Brain model
Complex Structures in the brain Function Associated response
Reptilian Brainstem, Cerebellum Survival- vital signs like breathing, heart rate, body temperature, pupillary response, digestion, hunger, satiation and balance Collapse
Paleomammalian or Limbic Amygdala, Hypothalamus, Hippocampus Belonging – memory, emotion, motivation, behavior, olfaction and learning Fight or flight
Neommalian or Neocortex Neocortex, Vagus Nerve Abstraction – language, thought, planning, sight and perception Social engagement

Let’s say a person was “trapped” in the social engagement response. She was faced by a raider and screamed for help, but nobody responded. She never got into the fight or flight response because luckily the guy got scared and run away, but still the woman felt as her call for help wasn’t listened. If the situation was intensive enough to create a trauma, this woman might have problems at her Neocortex functions. Her speech might become inconsistent, having trouble in articulating her thoughts or emotions.

Trauma means that we overcame a situation that threatened our survival, meaning the challenge is gone, but we stayed with the perceived danger of its existence. We have to consider survival its not only of the body, but of all aspects of our being- social bonding, emotional life, abstract thinking, and so on. The person stays in a survival state, for which it feels impossible to trust back in others, feel comfortable with a look in the eyes or keep regular cycles of sleep and concentration.

Also, many loose their sense of proportionality in front of dangers, which is why they might react in a disproportionated manner to relatively safe situations, which creates a permanent energetic expenditure. Facing this situation, many people unconsciously desensitize themselves to the signals that their body sends, which is why they might loose appetite, empathy, become apathetic or simply feel a constant physical pain without any apparent connection to a psychological event.

Moreover, a trauma can be so strong that it affects the identity of the person, which is why some people that have suffered severe traumas cannot even recognize themselves in the mirror. As the self has being trapped in the past, it paradoxically recurs to trauma to feel alive again, by looking for extreme emotions in sports, sex or addictions that bring him back again to the present. Being the only thing they feels real, many victims end up constantly visiting trauma as a refuge that hurts them but, at the same time, comforts them.

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Let’s see another example of a traumatic situation. A couple is discussing heavily in front of their child, and the father starts to hit the mother. The mother has a strong bond with the child, so an attack to her is an attack to himself. If he doesn’t has anybody to attend for help, he cannot fight his dad as he also loves him, and cannot run away nor freeze because they are beating his mother, there is a perfect situation for trauma.

What characterizes trauma patients is that they live in the paradox of trauma being profoundly graven in them, but in a fragmented manner. For this, when remembering traumatic events they cannot recount it as a story with a start, a climax and an end, but they associate smells, colors or sounds with the situation and they literally relive it in the present.

Hence, there is a daily memory that is the recording in the brain of the lived, which is accessible if one decides to remember some moment. In this type of memory to remember is to forget, as it is a fragile memory that has the purpose of giving us a sense of continuity and identity, not being an exact representation of the past.

In contrast, traumatic memory is held outside of time and keeps being immutable to the passing of years, constantly being relived without control by the person. In reality, most people do not remember the traumatic event but they associate experiences to very strong feelings that seem to not have an specific origin. For this, trauma could be defined as the involuntary movement of the past.

What happens specifically in the body?

The difficult part of this question is that the body is mixed with the mind, but we’ll try our best to keep them apart for a moment. From the table shown before, one could deduce that trauma is localized in the brain. The thing about this is that the nervous system is spread through the body, so in reality trauma is spread also through muscles, organs, and so on.

Still, the body might actually be more. In the work of Tom Myers, he talks about three holistic systems, meaning the nets in the body that wrap everything together. For this, he asks himself: if only this system existed, would it give a reliable picture of that person’s body? The respiratory system, for example, would not, and something as the skin would only show the outer layer.

The result of this mental experiment gave three connective systems: the neural (nervous) system, the fluid (circulatory) system and the fibrous (fascial) system, to which I would personally add the energetic system. If we consider this for a moment, the thinking of “it’s all in the head” is not totally true, as the nervous system is in a feedback loop with the circulatory and fascial system and they all constitute our consciousness.

Let’s not complicate this. The only thing I want to convey here is that trauma is in your head, yes, but it is also in your hormones, blood pH, muscles, fascia and so on. All of this things must be addressed for change to be, not only the stubborn affirmation of “I am happy despite everything”. One example would be the adrenal glands, that with the perception of danger may activate but, due to this sustained feeling, may fatigue and create chronic tiredness.

The next is a nice summary of the many ways the body might react to different traumas. Keep in mind the neural system is the fastest and reacts with impulses, reflexes and neurotransmitters that either excite or inhibit through the brain, spinal chord and nerves; the fluid net is slower and works around fluids like blood or water, dealing with hormones, pH and substances that connect thought vessels, capillaries and cells; the fibrous net is the slowest and communicates through lines of pull and push in the body, dealing with muscles, tendons, fascia and so on; and the energetic net is a work of mine, still under development. It includes both the mental and energetic states (in the oriental sense of the word).

The Imprint of Trauma
  Body Mind
Trauma in general The split can be seen in the body: there might be an empowerment of one side of the body, of the lower/upper body or of a muscle group over others. The posture held up in the traumatic experience might be engrained. One example was a woman that, during some trauma release sessions, would clasp the fingers tightly, or another one who would create a butterfly pose with her legs. All this postural habits are subtle and sometimes only accesible during extreme situations. They constitute the ‘armor’, which for Wilhelm Reich was a physical configuration that would impide the free flow of energy (breath) in the body, a form of neurosis. This breath can be blocked at the neck level or at the hips area, and constitute either a castration from our sentiments or from our sexuality. The body, not being integrated, has poor coordinating and there is not a balance between stability and mobility, as some areas are too strong and tight and others are too weak and loose. Posture reflects the mental conditions, like the fight or flight situation that causes a person to literally ‘be on their toes’, or the held back posture of a ‘collapse trauma’. The whole belief system accommodates to the new experience. For example, one could be drawn to the idea that the world is intrinsically unfair and not caring, or that all there is its matter or spirit, not both. The current theme is an imbalance: there is either the hypersensitive person who lacks courage and action, or the ruthless person who lacks creativity and empathy. In many ways, trauma constitutes the ego, an idea you can read more about in here.
Main frustrated response  Neural net Fluid net Fibrous net Energetic net
Social engagement According to Stephen Porges and his ‘Polyvagal theory’, the vagus nerve can be divided into two branches. A more primitive one regulates the collapse response, and a newer one controls the social engagement response. The first one would only be accesible if the second one fails. This nerve is part of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, and therefore controls the inhibition of the fight or flight response. Gag reflex is a common response, as many of the collapse responses but only in a lesser manner. The ‘vagus tone’, which is the activity of the vagus nerve measured by the rate of respiratory sinus arrhythmia (meaning breathing without rhythm, which is more common in relaxed states), is measured and related to our capacity to deal with stress. A high vagus tone might indicate our social engagement system works fine, but a low vagus tone could mean our body goes directly to the fight or flight system, without attending first to the calming social engagement response. The initial stages of the collapse response, only in a lesser manner. The situation of reaching out is mediated more by the extremities. The arms reach, the eyes contract, the face, palate, mouth and jaw muscles activate and the whole organism lengthens. There are similar responses to the collapse system, only in a lesser manner. If the call for aid was never responded, the feeling of abandonment prepares the body for fight or flight. There is the feeling that the world does not listens to us, or that our voice does not matter. We feel its better to keep things quiet, so we may struggle with expressing our feelings or thoughts. The abandonment of words might favor other ways of communication, like art. In character analysis, this corresponds most with the oral type, that came to be due to an early depravation of nurturing by the mother. If the failed response triggered an inhibition of it, it would correspond more with the rigid type, that came to be due to guilt or shame to sexual expression. In chakra terms, there is an blockage of mid level chakras, specially the throat, heart and solar plexus.
Fight or flight Specific excitatory neurotransmitters are released, like dopamine,  acetylcholine, histamine, epinephrine and norepinephrine. The sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system is triggered: Respiration rhythm and heartbeat accelerates, inhalation is favored over exhalation, catabolic processes rise, body temperature rises, pupils dilate, saliva flow is inhibited, the bronchi dilates, constipation is facilitated due to increased contraction of the secretion system. There is rapid eye movement. Defensive reflexes like the startle response might be activated, and brainwave frequency is increased. The hormones of action are released: adrenaline, testosterone, cortisol and corticotropin. They increase blood pressure, sugar (glucose) and acidity. Cholesterol levels and inflammation increases. The extensor/phasic muscle group, meaning the back part of your body, is tighten to face danger. Your back grows as a cobra but, if not relaxed afterwards, will create chronic tension in the neck muscles (scaleness, levator scapulae, sternocleidomastoid), back muscles (trapezius, lattisimus, quadratus lumborum) and posterior chain of the hips and legs (hamstrings, soleus-gastrocnemius and plantar fascia). This back muscles tighten to protect the spine, creating a military type posture, with possible lordosis and hyperextended kness that shift the balance forwards. Opening motions like external rotation, extension, retraction and abduction are promoted. Muscular tone and strength is increased. There is the feeling that we are not safe and cannot rest. In character analysis, this corresponds most with the masochist type, that came to be due to a suppression of the child by a smothering mother. If the failed response triggered an inhibition of it, it would correspond more with the rigid type, that came to be due to guilt or shame to sexual expression. In yin and yang terms, there is excessive yang energy; in chakra terms, there is an empowerment of lower level chakras, like the sacral and base.
Collapse Specific inhibitory neurotransmitters are released, like GABA, serotonin and cholecystokinin. The parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system is triggered: Respiration rhythm and heartbeat become inconsistent and decelerates (to the point of apnea and bradycardia), exhalation is favored more than inhalation, anabolic processes rise, body temperature decreases, pupils constrict, saliva flow is promoted, the bronchi constrics, and the secrete system is stimulated, which is why in front of extreme terror a person might urine or defecate involuntarily. Reflexes like the Vasovagal response may be present, and brainwave frequency is decreased. Hormones of rest and digest are released, like melatonin, growth hormone, insulin and serotonin. They reduce blood pressure, sugar (glucose) and acidity. Cholesterol levels and inflamation lower. The drawing back to safety means a returning to the fetal position. The whole flexion/tonic muscle group tightens, meaning the front part of your body (superficial abdominal muscles like the rectus abdominis, but also deep ones like the psoas and iliacus. Pec major and minor, biceps and intercostal muscles all tighten: the whole body collapses into a fetal position). This can be compensated by lordosis, creating a kyphotic- lordotic type posture or, if this doesn’t happen, the body addopts a “C” type shape to protect vulnerable parts like the troath, breast, belly and genitals. Closening motions like internal rotation, flexion, protraction and adduction are promoted. Muscular tone and strength is decreased. There is the feeling of not having enough energy or motivation to do anything. In character analysis, this corresponds most with the schizoid type, that came to be due to an early rejection by the parents. If the failed response triggered an inhibition of it, it would correspond more with the rigid type, that came to be due to guilt or shame to sexual expression. In yin and yang terms, there is excessive yin energy; in chakra terms, there is an empowerment of higher level chakras, like the crown or 3rd eye: the person is “up in the clouds”.

Remember: nobody is a cartoon of any of this problems, and most will have several combinations of them. Let’s hope that after all this there is a really good picture of how trauma affect us. The most important part is left- that is, what to do about it.

Click here to see the next post in this series.

If you’d like to know more about these topics, I recommend the work of Alexander Lowen and Peter Levine


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