Trauma can happen to anyone. We don’t mean that in the casual way the term is often misused. We mean real trauma, which can have serious mental and physical health consequences. And while there are a few major sources of shared trauma — the pandemic, climate disasters, police violence, and mass shootings — it can come from any traumatizing event.
While it can have serious mental health impacts, trauma can also show up in the form of physical symptoms and health issues. Whether you’ve experienced it firsthand, are supporting someone who has, or are constantly taking in traumatic news events, you may be feeling the side effects. We chatted with Jessica Stern, a clinical psychologist at NYU Langone Psychiatry Associates, to understand how trauma can manifest in your body.
Back up. What is trauma?
Trauma is a psychological response to experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Like an accident, a death, or sexual assault. It can happen in many different ways. You may have experienced trauma firsthand from a traumatizing event or repeated race-based traumatic stress (“RBTS” for short). Maybe you’ve experienced “secondary trauma” by supporting someone who has experienced trauma or “watching someone struggle,” said Stern. Or perhaps you’ve been retraumatized by taking in a seemingly endless news cycle of violence.
Sometimes trauma can develop into acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which Stern explained can cause “disturbances in how people feel, how they think, and how they function in their day-to-day living.” Almost 8% of adult Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lives, and Black adults are more likely to have PTSD than people of any other race. Women are twice as likely to experience it as men, and those identifying as LGBTQ+ are at a higher risk of developing PTSD than heterosexuals — nearly four times as much in some cases.
That’s a lot. So how do traumatizing events affect the body?
Trauma can come with a number of symptoms. Such as…
Chronic pain. Stress causes wear and tear on the body. Someone who has been traumatized may have pain more often than someone who hasn’t had the same history. That’s because anxiety and stress can make muscles more tense, which can lead to chronic pain over time.
Increased exposure to cortisol. Cortisol isn’t always bad. But too much of it can lead to other health concerns down the road. Like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, or memory issues.
Panic attacks. You may associate panic attacks with mental and emotional symptoms, but they also have “a strong physiological component to it,” said Stern. You may experience heart palpitations, sweating, nausea, dizziness, and stomach aches.
Anxiety. Plus, depression and survivor’s guilt. Know that your feelings are legitimate.
Stress. Obviously. Plus, exhausted, vulnerable, isolated, and helpless
Headaches and migraines. Which can be triggered by stress.
If you think you might be dealing with trauma, start by consulting a mental health pro to discuss a path to healing that’s best for you. And check out some expert-backed tips on how to cope with trauma.
Traumatic events create a domino effect of pain and distress. And there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to return to baseline. Wherever your trauma comes from and however it presents itself mentally or physically, there are ways to take care of yourself and start to heal.
Updated on Feb. 7, 2023 to reflect new information.
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