How Trauma and the Body are Connected

Tessa Burns MartinTrauma

Written by Sharon Stopforth, Registered Social Worker at Serenity Now

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a psychophysical experience which disrupts the functioning of individuals afflicted by it.  A traumatic event continues to intrude with visual, auditory or body symptoms such as accelerated heart rate, cold sweats, rapid breathing, heart palpitations, and jumpiness.  Victims relive the life-threatening experience, reacting in mind and body as though such events were still occurring.  Symptoms of PTSD can be brought about again by external and internal reminders of the traumatic event.  Internal reminders of the event can be as simple as increased heart rate and respiration or body posture reminiscent of the event and external triggers can be things such as color, sight, taste, touch, and smell.

It is thought that what causes PTSD is the storage of traumatic memories in implicit memory that are not linked to explicit memory.  What this means is that the traumatic memory gets stored in our automatic and unconscious memory system and bypasses language and our ability to express the traumatic memory.  Implicit memory is at the core of body memory.  One of the goals of trauma therapy is to help individuals understand their bodily sensations.  If we can identify and name our emotions associated with internal body states using awareness, we can reconnect the bypass that took place.

Some people can be predisposed to PTSD from stressful events during early development: neglect, physical and sexual abuse, failure of the attachment bond, and individual traumatic incidents.  It is thought that individuals who suffered early trauma and/or did not have the benefit of a healthy attachment may have limited capacity for regulating stress.  With assistance from a loving caregiver, an infant learns to regulate their emotional responses with touch, sound, and eye contact. Without this early learning to regulate stress by an attuned caregiver, later traumatic experiences might be remembered as highly charged emotions and body sensations or it may be that survival mechanisms such as freezing and dissociation have become so habituated that more adaptive strategies never had a chance develop.

However, infancy is not the only chance an individual has for developing healthy attachment.  Many children make up for it later in life with a best friend or special teacher.  And many adults find a healing bond with a mature love relationship.  Others find the bond in the psychotherapeutic relationship where developing attachment, body awareness, and learning boundaries assist in creating resilience and building resources.