How psychological trauma impacts the body

Psychological trauma and its impacts on the body - Tikvah Lake Recovery

Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of emotional trauma is how it can hit even the most stoic, grounded among us like a freight train.

Physical injuries can cause profound pain and discomfort for the sufferer, yet such wounds are quantifiable, expected in the face of a horrible, unanticipated event, like a car accident, for example.

Emotional trauma

Psychological trauma works entirely differently from injury-related trauma – creeping up on people when they least expect it, primarily because of how the human nervous system functions.

The human body 

Emotional trauma can cause profound changes in the mind and body that may elicit disparagement, dependence, and a whole range of worries that can impact a person’s functioning and daily living when left untreated.

Loss of security

A terrible event can cause an avalanche of complicated feelings and emotions when it occurs.

It can take a lot of time to recover from a traumatic event and the sensations, recollections, and the sense of foreboding that comes with not having the opportunity to enjoy a sense of security that existed pre-trauma.

Brain chemistry

Medical researcher Ben Lesser describes the fascinating way in which the human brain operates and how such an efficient “supercomputer” can store our recollections and encounters, making up the components of each life story.

Stored trauma 

Trauma experts explain how trauma stores or hibernates in the brain and body. 

Moreover, Lesser’s explanation of “stored” trauma compounds the research further.

When life merrily chugs along the same track without so much as a hitch, the part of the brain called the cerebrum is the most efficient supercomputer on earth.

The above is a complex, organized sequence of approximately 100 billion neurons that are phenomenal at managing and arranging data, but they are also swift.

Traumatic events

Lesser explains that somewhere close to 18 and 640 trillion electric heartbeats are consistently whizzing through our minds – a framework that carefully encodes and stores our experiences and recollections.

Mental health professionals, particularly those working with trauma clients, are consistently seeking more knowledge around the mechanics of trauma and how one disturbing or traumatic event can upset or disturb the entire framework.

How trauma changes the mind

Ben Lesser describes how emotional trauma hibernates in the body and psyche and can profoundly influence a person’s wellbeing for a significant amount of time.

Lesser explains that “emotional trauma isn’t ‘simply in your mind’. 

It leaves a genuine engraving on your body, shaking your memory stockpiling measures and changing your mind” (Ben lesser, Effects of Trauma on the Human Body, April 2021).

Physical effects of psychological trauma

Physical effects of psychological trauma - Tikvah Lake Recovery

If left untreated, psychological trauma may impact an individual’s emotional and physical wellbeing.

Unresolved trauma can make a person vulnerable to all kinds of physical ailments such as stroke, diabetes, heart failure, stoutness, and other diseases.

Mental health issues 

As well as causing physical health problems, trauma can also lead to severe mental health complications such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

Inherently, numbness can be an attractive option in the face of emotional trauma, luring people into self-destructive behaviors such as drug or alcohol abuse and other risky behaviors like gambling and sex addiction.

The body keeps the score.

Trauma specialists explain how the body keeps score and that the damage caused by dangerous mishaps is more severe depending on the number of adverse experiences a person encounters.

Adverse childhood experiences

For example, people who have experienced adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are more likely to endure more significant trauma throughout their lifespan.

ACEs are adverse life experiences that cause profound trauma for an individual and include:

  • Domestic violence
  • Child abuse or neglect
  • The sudden loss of a parent or caregiver
  • Kidnapping
  • Child exploitation rings
  • Sexual or physical assault

Essentially, the more ACEs a person endures throughout their life, the more profound and complex any associated trauma is likely to be.

Antagonistic youth encounters

Harvard researchers found that a person’s propensity for trauma increases when they have experienced at least three negative encounters, called ‘antagonistic youth encounters.’

Effects of stored trauma on the body

The way emotional trauma envelops people can come as a huge surprise, as many trauma survivors appear to be sturdy and functional members of society.

All the while, emotional trauma decays within different regions of the body and psyche, incapacitating the body’s defenses until it manifests as disease.

Why psychological trauma occurs

There are many scientific theories around emotional trauma, with many researchers hypothesizing whether the release of specific chemicals in the body such as norepinephrine and cortisol are responsible.

The Polyvagal theory

Another phenomenal theory around the mechanics of emotional trauma is the Polyvagal theory, a model that Dr. Stephen Porges developed in 1994.

The Polyvagal Theory is a series of evolutionary, neuroscientific, and psychological theories that explain the vagus nerve’s role in social cues, emotional regulation, and the human fear response.


The word “safety” gets used quite a lot when discussing trauma. It is a relevant factor in how a person feels or doesn’t, depending on their experiences and circumstances.

The Polyvagal Theory is based on how the nervous system functions and operates on three critical systems under two main conditions.

The first is when a person feels distressed and unsafe; the second is when a person functions normally and experiences a feeling of safety.

Trauma experts describe the “safety” component as an entirely relevant aspect when confronted with trauma.

Essentially, an event or experience that one person deems as “safe” might feel wholly unsafe and distressing to another.

Inherently, the above responses are based on a person’s trauma history and experiences.

Sympathetic nervous system

Trauma and nervous system - Tikvah Lake Recovery

The brain engages several systems before it engages the sympathetic nervous system during a traumatic event. 

Broadly, in the instance where the brain engages what is called the social engagement system and this process fails for whatever reason (likely due to profound trauma or the inability for the body to return to a calmer state), the next step is for the brain to engage the sympathetic nervous system.

The above occurs in extreme trauma cases where the social engagement system cannot return the body to its normal equilibrium.

Fight or flight 

Here, the person goes into fight or flight where the body gets instructed to flee the environment and run towards safety.

In cases where leaving the environment is not possible, the fight response takes over and prepares the body to defend itself or fight back. 

If the above systems fail, then the body moves into the third stage; this is especially so in deadly or life-threatening situations.


In the above instance, the parasympathetic nervous system gets activated, and the individual moves into the freeze stage, where they may dissociate, become shocked or even faint.

When traumatic events are severe, the body shuts down as an act of self-preservation.

Returning to safety

Compared to the disconnection and self-protection experienced in trauma, when a person feels safe, the nervous system operates in a more connected way through features such as face-to-face engagement, like a soothing tone of voice or sturdy eye contact.

Trauma and PTSD

When a person’s sense of safety remains off-kilter, or a traumatic experience has broken the person to an exponential degree, the body may react suddenly.


Flashbacks - a trauma symptom - Tikvah Lake Recovery

Psychological trauma can often lead to the development of the mental health condition, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), where a person may experience the following symptoms:

  • Flashbacks – involve memories related to the terrible incident that come up suddenly in an individual’s memory where they may feel as though they are reliving the event all over again.
  • Anxiety – involves a sense of dread suddenly, or the episodes get triggered by a reminder of the event.
  • Separation – involves feeling numb, separated from your environment, isolated from your body, or as if nothing around you is real or believable.
  • Hyperarousal – feeling nervous, incapable of relaxing, or on edge. A person may also be hypersensitive to threat or danger.
  • Alcohol and substance abuse – a way to adapt and cope with the distressing feelings and emotions related to the traumatic event


Fortunately, trauma treatment options are available to those living with the adverse effects of trauma. They include:

Living with the impact of trauma doesn’t have to be a way of life – there are effective treatments available to help alleviate trauma symptoms, which can put people in good prognostic groups.If you would like to find out more about our trauma treatment programs, get in touch with one of our specialists at Tikvah Lake Recovery who can help.


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