We are wild animals. I mean that in every sense of the word. Our species took a winding evolutionary path to get here and picked up all kinds of nifty tricks along the way: immune systems that keep us safe, skin that grows calloused and hard in rough environments, and brains that are tuned to look for danger. As a result of all those years surviving in nature, our bodies evolved into complex, beautiful machines built for survival. Our relationship with trauma is rooted in those mechanisms.

 In this article, we’ll explore what trauma is and how our bodies remember it.

man with hands over mouth looking upUnderstanding Trauma

When you’re in a stressful, traumatic situation, your body switches into fight-or-flight mode. All sorts of strange mechanisms kick into high gear. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline start pumping through your body. Your heart rate picks up, your senses get sharper, and your reaction times even improve.

But some strange things happen when we’re in fight-or-flight mode. Our bodies store memories differently. Visceral, scary things are processed emotionally. Those memories often end up either crystal clear or fuzzy and vague.

Trauma Changes Our Bodies

Our bodies don’t stop adapting to our environment when we’re born. When we grow up in stressful environments, we spend our time swimming in cortisol and adrenaline. They’re not only drugs that keep our machines purring in scary situations, but they also take a toll. Constant exposure to stress hormones impacts the development of the brain, with several long-term effects.

Changes to the development of the amygdala, hippocampus, and other areas of the brain affect how we store memories, regulate emotion, and experience anxiety and danger in the world around us. Heavy doses of cortisol and adrenaline over a long period of time can lead to adverse physiological effects, like:

  • muscle pain
  • aches
  • nausea
  • heart problems
  • weakened immune systems

Memories and Triggers

Because traumatic memories are stored differently than regular memories, we don’t always know when something’s triggering those pain points. Traumatic memories are closely linked to the sensory experience of the moment:

  • smells
  • tastes
  • sounds
  • sensations
  • visual patterns

These ‘reminders’ can trigger an emotional fight-or-flight response without us knowing why: a sudden outburst of anger, the feeling of nausea, or anxiety and panic.

Traumatic Experiences

At the beginning of this article we talked a little about how our bodies are complex and beautiful, right? Well, like any sufficiently complex machine, it comes with some quirks. Our fight-or-flight instinct to trauma is great for surviving cold nights in the wild, encounters with lions and bears—but it’s not so great at navigating school, work, or romantic relationships.

Our bodies don’t always know how to differentiate between life-and-death situations versus being bullied in the lunch line or failing to meet a deadline on a project. Regardless of the source, trauma is what it is. The impacts are physiological. As a result, our tendency to compare and minimize trauma often keeps us from getting the help we need.

Adaptation and Recovery

Some good news? Our bodies know how to heal. They’re amazing at it. Our brains may lose some neuroplasticity over time, but they’re built to adapt and never stop learning. Accordingly, we can heal from the wounds left behind by traumatic experiences. With time and the right techniques, our brains can learn to ease off that fight-or-flight instinct that keeps us running on high alert.

Schedule a Consultation

Schedule a free consultation today to learn more about how our bodies remember trauma. Healing comes from within, but it’s a skill we need to learn and practice. I’d love to talk to you more about your trauma therapy and your body’s natural capacity to heal.