What exactly happens to the body during trauma response?

Jennifer MitchellJennifer Mitchell, Trauma

Often clients are interested to know what is occurring in the body when they are experiencing a flashback, trauma response or engrained pattern based on childhood trauma.  We can think of the body as a system with multiple subsystems.  Many of our experiences with past trauma centers on our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The ANS regulates the functions of our internal organs. Most of the time, because the ANS functions reflexively and involuntary, we are unaware of the ANS. However, our ability to respond and react to the environment (whether safe or dangerous) around us is largely determined by the ANS.

The ANS includes 3 other systems – 1) Social/Engagement Nervous System, 2) Sympathetic Nervous System & 3) Parasympathetic Nervous System. 

Remember all of this happens extremely quickly and part of the work in therapy will be paying attention to what is happening in your body.

The Social engagement nervous system (SENS) is said to provide us with the flexibility in our communication and regulation in the parts of our body that are used for social/environmental interaction (Ogden Minton & Pain, 2006).  The SENS influences eyelids (looking), facial muscles (expressions), middle ear muscles (listening to human voice amongst other background noise), head muscles (social gestures) etc.  

If all is well in our environment and our SENS is functioning, we are able to interact with others in a clear, calm way & make decisions. We feel:

  • Open
  • Available for connection and interaction
  • Interact with others in a calm manner
  • Make decisions
  • Relaxed, yet alert
  • Appropriate reactivity
  • Present
  • Emotionally stable

Thus, all other related parts (i.e., automatic nervous system, which controls, heart, breathing, digestion, organs, etc.) fall in line and function as per usual.  

However, in the presence real or perceived danger (such as old traumas still stored in the mind & body) our SENS will scan the environment around us to determine if social engagement/interaction can resolve the threat (even an imagined threat). You may notice:

  • Constricted breathing
  • Increased heart rate
  • Tense jaws/shoulder
  • Body is on  “ALERT” until the safety or danger is confirmed

For example, even in a threatening situation, such as an attack, people may find themselves reasoning or bargaining with an attacker. In a flashback, we may reach for the phone to call a friend to hear a grounding safe voice. Our first line of defense (often) is to try and socially engage and use reason to neutralize the threat.

However, if the flashback (whatever it is) cannot be corrected with social engagement such as eye contact, hearing a person’s voice, smiling, talking or other social interactions, or attempts are unsuccessful it continues to trigger a memory pattern from a past experience.

This is when the Sympathetic NS kicks in and tries to fight or flight to resolve the situation (real or perceived).  

What does that feel like?

  • major muscle groups are engaged,
  • heart rate and respiration increases
  • digestion decreases
  • The rational part of our brain is hijacked
  • The   SENS  goes “offline”
  • Our ability to interact calmly and rationally with other people may decrease

If we are successful in fighting off, managing, or escaping the “perceived threat” then the body’s nervous system generally returns to a state of homeostasis and we are often more resilient for having gone through that experience. 

However, if the “dangerous” situation is not resolved, or it is perceived to be impossible to escape, then the Parasympathetic nervous system, the most primitive aspect of the ANS is activated and signals Freeze/Play Dead.

However, it is like having one foot on the accelerator while the other foot is now concurrently on the brake. So even if the threat is resolved, the stored energy needs to be released somehow to restore the body’s homeostasis. (Ogden, Minton & Pain, 2006).

Peter Levine (2010) talks about how in the animal kingdom, animals often undergo stress and near death experiences. However, the animal shakes, shudders, defecates, vomits, yawns etc., to release the stressful/traumatic experience and the animal will be quicker, stronger and smarter for having been challenged. Most humans do NOT to discharge the energy from a traumatic experiences; thus, it stays in the nervous system & builds over time. (For more detail, refer to  Peter Levine and Pat Ogden).

This buildup of energy can leads to traumatic symptoms and PTSD.

Remember this all can go in while talking with a friend, out for dinner or during a romantic evening. Something may trigger the old memory and the body reacts. Often people ‘fight’ through this, stamping down the body’s natural impulse to release, actually compounding the problem

So in summary – PTSD or childhood trauma patterns can result from the body being unable to discharge the stored energy of the past experience, therefore not allowing the body’s system to reset itself.

When we experience trauma, often the body’s social responses, including executive functioning and rationality/reasoning are hijacked by the historic effects of the trauma.

Whether we have experienced one incident or multiple incidents over time, if they are not “discharged” – the body remembers.  You may have talked about your trauma but it perhaps didn’t discharge the memory pattern in the body of some common trauma reactions, e.g., “needing to protect yourself” “keep the peace” “makes yourself small”.  These “patterns” then often show up in important relationships.

The body can often react when faced with triggers such as smell, person, color, sound, emotion etc.,  – the body responds to the “threat”- despite it not being real – even if it years later.

You will react AS if “ I AM in danger, distress etc.” not as “ I WAS in danger THEN.

Thus, in therapy, we work “on the edge” within the boundaries of tolerance (dotted lines) in order to integrate the experience.

Often we experience hyperarousal, which means there is too much arousal integrate experience. Or we may experience, hypoarousal – not enough arousal to integrate experience.

Awareness is part of the healing!

If you want to learn more about what happens in the body from past childhood traumas, call or email info@devsnw.wpengine.com.



Trauma and the Body: A sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy by Pat Ogden, Kekuni Mntion and Clare Pain
In an unspoken voice: How the body releases trauma and restores goodness by Peter Levine.