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Understanding Trauma's Impact on the Nervous System

Trauma can come in a variety of forms, such as physical assault or emotional abuse. Moreover, trauma can also stem from both physical and psychological harm. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), individual trauma can cause physical, emotional, and or life-threatening harm. As a result, trauma can have a profound impact on your physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual well-being. Therefore, understanding trauma’s impact on you can help dismantle harm to your mind, body, and spirit.

At The Guest House, we know trauma’s impact can leave you stuck in survival mode. Survival mode happens when your nervous system goes into overdrive. When your body is overwhelmed by the symptoms of trauma, it can feel impossible to cope. Thus, you may engage in self-defeating and self-destructive behaviors like substance misuse to escape trauma’s impact. However, trauma’s impact does not have to impair or take over your life. Due to our commitment to holistic and trauma-specific care, you can build the tools you need to heal.

Yet, you may question how you can overcome trauma’s impact when your symptoms overwhelm you. Additionally, you may wonder how to dismantle trauma’s impact when you are not aware of any trauma in your life. Despite the prevalence of trauma, it is not uncommon for people to be unaware of their challenges. Oftentimes, challenges with substance use disorder (SUD) and or other mental health disorders stem from trauma. Although it may feel like it, when trauma gets stuck in the body, it is not a lost cause. When you have more insight into trauma’s impact on the nervous system, you can truly start to heal.

Understanding Your Nervous System

Now you may wonder what exactly is the nervous system and how it relates to trauma. As noted by Medline Plus, the nervous system is made up of two parts, the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. Further, the central nervous system is made up of the brain and the spinal cord.

Within the central nervous system, the brain and spinal cord act as the processing center for the entire nervous system. Your central nervous system controls all your body functions, including your thoughts, memories, emotions, and behaviors. On the other hand, the peripheral nervous system houses all the nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord.

Moreover, the peripheral nervous system is made of two parts as well:

  • Autonomic nervous system (ANS):
    • Controls your internal body processes
      • Blood pressure
      • Breathing
      • Digestion
  • Somatic nervous system (SNS):
    • Controls your muscles
    • Sends signals from your ears, eyes, mouth, and skin to the central nervous system

Now looking at all the parts of the nervous system highlights its importance to your ability to function. Yet, how does the nervous system directly influence trauma’s impact on your well-being? As noted by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), your nervous system is not only the major controlling, regulatory, and communicating system of your body but also the center for all mental activity

Further, as the center for all mental activity, your nervous system is connected to thinking, learning, and memory. The level of control over the functioning of the nervous system showcases the interconnected relationship between your brain and body. There is a deep mind-body connection between how you feel internally and externally.

Moreover, the mind-body connection entails the following overlapping functions of the nervous system:

  • Sensory: You have millions of sensory receptors that can detect stimuli changes inside and outside the body
    • Sensory input is converted into electrical signals known as nerve impulses, which are transmitted to the brain
      • Creates sensations to produce thoughts and or add memories to the brain
  • Integrative: The process of minute-by-minute decisions made by the thoughts and or memories formed through sensory input
  • Motor: Through sensory input and integration, the nervous system responds by sending signals to the muscles and or glands
    • Muscles contract
    • Glands produce secretions

With more understanding of the mind-body in sensory, integration, and motor, you can recognize trauma’s impact on the nervous system.

Trauma’s Impact on Your Nervous System

Everyone has an acute stress response, also known as the fight-or-flight response, that activates in the presence of mentally and physically frightening things. For example, your fight-or-flight response can be triggered when you slam on your breaks to avoid an accident. Moreover, the fight-or-flight response can happen when you feel nervous about a test at school or a presentation at work. In this way, the fight-or-flight response is not inherently a bad thing. This response is rather a natural survival response that helps you respond to danger or do something new.

However, the fight-or-flight response can be harmful when you get stuck in that survival mode. Worded differently, trauma’s impact leads to physical and psychological distress as you get stuck in the fight-or-flight response. You are left frozen by the overreaction of your nervous system. Thus, trauma’s impact makes it difficult or impossible to respond to stressors in your life. One of the many symptoms of trauma’s impact is hypervigilance, which is a heightened fear of danger from people and places. 

With hypervigilance, you are always on guard, which can lead to physical and psychological symptoms like:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Sweating
  • Anxiety
  • Panic
  • Easily startled
  • Dilated pupils

Furthermore, symptoms of hypervigilance can contribute to various behavioral changes like angry outbursts because you are on edge. In addition, hypervigilance and other trauma symptoms like hyperarousal, flashbacks, and nightmares can contribute to each other. For instance, various symptoms like hypervigilance and nightmares can lead to sleep loss and feelings of anger and irritability. Thus, the various physical and behavioral symptoms of trauma highlight trauma’s impact on your sense of self.

The Body of Trauma: Addressing Trauma’s Impact on the Self

Trauma can have a profound impact on your sense of self. Moreover, trauma’s impact on physical and psychological health can negatively influence the way you see yourself, others, and the world around you. For example, unaddressed challenges with trauma can leave you feeling deeply unsafe in the world. Although the world is not inherently safe, living in that kind of mindset is not sustainable for quality of life.

As noted in the European Journal of Psychotraumatology, people generally engage in an assumptive world as a part of their fundamental assumptions. The assumptive world is a set of core beliefs that impact who you are, what is the world around you, and how you make sense of both. Within the assumptive world, you believe the world is a reasonably safe, predictable, benevolent, and meaningful place to live in. Thus, the assumptive world you live in often supports a balanced healthy worldview.

Through a healthy worldview, you can foster and maintain a balanced sense of self, of others, the world, and your place in the world. However, trauma’s impact can severely disrupt your sense of balance and shatter your fundamental assumptions about yourself and the world. When your core beliefs are shattered, how to function in your day-to-day life is greatly changed.

Further, as noted in Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, trauma’s impact can include a range of signs, symptoms, and behaviors that influence your sense of self. Listed below are some of the signs, symptoms, and behaviors that can change your sense of self from trauma’s impact:

Dysregulation: Difficulty regulating emotions like anger, anxiety, and sadness. Additional symptoms may include:

  • Irritability
  • Angry outburst
  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Helplessness
  • Numbing: Your emotions feel detached from your thoughts, behaviors, and memories. You may also experience difficulty feeling positive emotions like joy.

Detachment: Feeling distant from others and or it is difficult to feel concern for others.

Physical reactions may include:

  • Upset stomach
  • Headaches
  • Sweating
  • Rapid breathing
  • Pounding heart
  • Sleep issues

Hyperarousal symptoms may include:

  • Easily startled
  • Always on guard
  • Feeling jumpy
  • Muscle tension

Cognitive reactions: Trauma’s impact leads to thought-process changes in which you no longer feel safe in the world. Such reactions might include:

  • Intrusive thoughts and memories
  • Cognitive errors
  • Negative expectancy bias

Behavioral reactions: You engage in unhealthy or maladaptive coping mechanisms to reduce tension and stress.

Avoidant behaviors: Trauma’s impact leads you to avoid people, places, things, and situations that remind you of the trauma. such behaviors may include:

  • Self-medicating and misusing substances to cope with trauma’s impact
  • Substance Use Disorder (SUD)
  • Overconsumption of food

Reenactments: Trauma’s impact leads to reexperiencing in which you recreate and relive your trauma in your present life. this could lead to impulsive, high-risk, and self-injurious behaviors such as risky sexual behavior, especially entering romantic relationships with abusive partners or self-injurious behaviors.

Social and interpersonal reactions: Trauma’s impact can have a significant impact on your relationships regardless of the type of trauma you experience. You may avoid reaching out to loved ones for support or believe that no one can understand what you have experienced. Additional thoughts and behaviors could include:

  • Increased difficulty believing the trustworthiness of others
  • Worrying that you are a burden to your loved ones
  • Challenges with symptoms may lead you to pull away out of fear
  • Angry outbursts from nightmares and triggers
  • Getting into fights
  • Feeling ashamed of your trauma, traumatic responses, and or self-blame for trauma impedes seeking support.
  • Experiences with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can impair your ability to build healthy relationships in adulthood. Interpersonal trauma often reflects being betrayed by the people who were supposed to protect you.
  • Impedes your ability to connect with a trust others
  • Increased vigilance of others’ behaviors
  • Feeling certain or concerned that you will be taken advantage of, physically hurt, or left feeling disappointed

Looking at trauma’s impact on your emotions, cognitions, behaviors, body, and relationships highlights the profound loss of self. Through the shattering of your worldview, it becomes easier to perceive yourself and the world in a negative light. If you can only see the harm that has happened to you, it becomes more difficult to recognize positive outcomes.

Despite the difficulties of a negative thought process born from trauma’s impact, recovery is possible. Greater awareness of the mind-body connection between your trauma and your reactions can give you insight into how to address it. Now that you have a better understanding of the mind-body connection, you can build tools to support trauma recovery.

Fostering Therapeutic Tools for Trauma Recovery

According to Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, there are numerous trauma-specific treatments and non-trauma-focused interventions that can be used to support trauma recovery. Listed below are some of the evidence-based treatments that can be used to address trauma’s impact on your well-being:

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): Can include both trauma-specific and non-trauma-specific CBT. Through trauma-specific CBT, you learn how to reduce negative perceptions of yourself and different situations. It also helps decrease unhealthy behavioral and cognitive strategies.

Prolonged exposure therapy (PE): Typically focuses on altering dysfunctional fear structures that occur when your fear response is disproportional to the situation. Some exercises include:

  • Psychoeducation
  • Breathwork
  • Exposure

In vivo exposure: Helps you approach people, places, and situations you have avoided due to trauma’s impact on your fear response

Imaginal exposure: You learn how to approach the memories, thoughts, and emotions related to your trauma that you have been avoiding

Cognitive processing therapy (CPT): A trauma-focused therapy that focuses on helping you identify maladaptive cognitions, which are assimilated and over-accommodated beliefs.

  • Assimilated: This happens when incoming information is altered to confirm prior beliefs. It also contributes to self-blame beliefs about what you think you should have done to prevent your trauma.
  • Over-accommodated: This happens when you change your beliefs to prevent trauma from happening again. This contributes to developing beliefs that the world is dangerous, and people cannot be trusted.
  • Through CPT, you learn how to shift your beliefs from assimilated and over-accommodated to accommodation.
  • Accommodation happens when you alter your beliefs enough to accommodate the new things you learn. It contributes to adaptive coping, in which you recognize that trauma does not equal negative outcomes forever. Accommodation also helps you dismantle self-blaming thoughts and beliefs.

In addition to evidence-based therapies, there are also a variety of holistic therapeutic interventions that support trauma recovery. As noted by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), mind-body therapies can be used to address various overlapping trauma symptoms like physical pain and hyperarousal symptoms. Listed below are some of the mind-body therapies and interventions that can address trauma’s impact on your well-being:

  • Mindfulness: You remain aware of your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surroundings without judgment.
  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  •  Tai Chi: A form of self-defense that focuses on slow-intention body movement. It can support balance and reductions in pain. It’s also able to manage concentration issues, intrusive thoughts, and processing
  • Qi gong: A form of self-defense that focuses on repeating movements to stretch the body, increase fluidity, and build awareness of your body through movement. This supports stress reduction from trauma’s impact through mindfulness, meditation, breathwork, and movement
  • Acupuncture
  • Relaxation: Focuses on proper breathing and positive thought images to reduce stress in the body and mind
  • Deep breathing
  • Biofeedback: You learn how to control your bodily functions by monitoring different functions like blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, and muscle tension. It also supports self-regulation as you learn to understand and control your body.

Through evidence-based therapies and interventions, you can start healing trauma in and outside of treatment.

Healing Trauma’s Impact on Well-Being at The Guest House

At The Guest House, we believe in providing a highly personalized treatment plan to address your specific needs. Through a holistic and trauma-specific approach to care, you can discover the right path for you. Trauma’s impact on your nervous system can profoundly impair other areas of function for well-being. Thus, individualized treatment with a wide range of therapeutic modalities acknowledges your unique experiences. With access to a variety of accessible mind-body interventions, trauma’s impact can no longer hold you hostage. Therefore, reaching out for support can give you the space and tools you need to heal.

Trauma’s impact can harm your physical, emotional, mental, behavioral, and social well-being. When left unaddressed, trauma overwhelms your nervous system as your body gets stuck in survival mode. Moreover, trauma can shatter your sense of self and the way you see others and the world. Trauma can convince you that the world is dangerous and that every experience will have a negative outcome, which contributes to a loss of hope and trust in life and people. However, with trauma-specific therapies and interventions, you can address the mind-body connection of trauma. At The Guest House, we are committed to providing a holistic individualized treatment plan to support healing your specific challenges with trauma. Call us at (855) 483-7800 to learn more.