The Impact of Trauma on your Mind and Body

We carry our experiences with us 

Trauma is not just a category of experiences, it is also about our response to those experiences. An ongoing stressor can be a traumatic experience, as can the betrayal of trust in a relationship, a physical accident, or suddenly losing someone important to you. There is a broad range of events that are typically considered to be traumatic. It essentially refers to a wound.

We all have wounds.

What matters more than the event is how your mind and body responded to it both in the moment and afterward. If something from the past keeps popping up in your present-day life, it’s a good sign that the memory wasn’t properly processed or encoded like your other memories.

The degree of danger or intensity in an experience does not mean that someone will end up with PTSD. Humans all over the world experience awful, stressful things all the time, and not all of them continue to struggle with it. So why is that?

For a moment, think of humans as pots of water. We all start off with a different baseline of water (this relates to our biological predisposition and generational trauma). Then, life happens and water gets added. Throw in some heat, and the pots will start to boil over. Humans are similar. There are things that serve as buffers for us, that can help protect us from the unavoidable difficult parts of being human. So, maybe in this metaphor that would look like someone present in the kitchen attending to the pot. There is nothing wrong with a pot of water that boils over. It is just a result of the capacity and the events that unfold.

Trauma + your Mind

Trauma creates changes in how your mind responds to stress, and it also changes the functioning of your midbrain (amygdala, hippocampus, and hypothalamus). Trauma can impair the functioning of your limbic system; which is involved in our emotional and behavioral responses, memory storage and retrieval, motivation, and learning. It can also impair our HPA axis, its role is to manage the effects of stress as well as our metabolism, immune system, and autonomic nervous system.

So, what does that mean?

It means that after experiencing a single or multiple incident(s), or on-going stressors your brain adjusts accordingly. In order to protect itself, the brain breaks up pieces of stressful memories instead of fully processing them. This is why you notice things we call triggers or flashbacks. Details like colors, sounds, smells, or images that are similar to a part of the fragmented memory will create a response as if the past experience were happening again in the present moment. On the flip side, trauma can also impair your ability to remember traumatic memories or important parts of the memory. These are normal changes in response to stressful and difficult experiences. Your brain does what it needs to in order to survive, not necessarily in order to return to your previous way of being.

You may notice yourself either being over-reactive (feeling on edge or overwhelmed) or under-reactive (numb and disconnected). Difficulty navigating heightened emotions, having a hard time getting in touch with positive emotions, or increased feelings of shame, guilt, self-blame, and despair are common emotional experiences.

Your mind’s perception of yourself, others, or the world around you often changes. You may notice yourself having a hard time feeling calm or resting. That is because your mind has been primed, or overly prepared itself for impending danger. This can show up as feeling on-edge, startling more easily, and feeling overly sensitive to your environment. Or the other end of the spectrum, this can be experienced as shutting down easily, feeling detached from yourself or disconnected from your environment, or feeling like you’re living in a fog.

“Let’s say you always considered your driving time as “your time”—and your car as a safe place to spend that time. Then someone hits you from behind at a highway entrance. Almost immediately, the accident affects how you perceive the world, and from that moment onward, for months following the crash, you feel unsafe in any car. You become hypervigilant about other drivers and perceive that other cars are drifting into your lane or failing to stop at a safe distance behind you. For a time, your perception of safety is eroded, often leading to compensating behaviors (e.g., excessive glancing into the rearview mirror to see whether the vehicles behind you are stopping) until the belief is restored or reworked. Some individuals never return to their previous belief systems after a trauma, nor do they find a way to rework them—thus leading to a worldview that life is unsafe. Still, many other individuals are able to return to organizing core beliefs that support their perception of safety.” (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, 2014).

Another difficulty may show up in your relationships, especially if you’ve experienced relational trauma. This can look like pulling away from friends and family, difficulty trusting, avoiding people in order to avoid reminders of your experiences, or for fear of burdening or negatively impacting others.

Trauma + your Body

Our entire being operates through systems and these systems are interconnected. So, just as trauma leaves its mark on our minds it also impacts our physical body as well.

“Diagnostic criteria for PTSD place considerable emphasis on psychological symptoms, but some people who have experienced traumatic stress may present initially with physical symptoms. Thus, primary care may be the first and only door through which these individuals seek assistance for trauma-related symptoms. Moreover, there is a significant connection between trauma, including adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and chronic health conditions. Common physical disorders and symptoms include somatic complaints; sleep disturbances; gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, neurological, musculoskeletal, respiratory, and dermatological disorders; urological problems; and substance use disorders.” (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, 2014).

The nervous system is one of the links between our minds and our body. Your nervous system’s primary job is to constantly scan your inner and outer environment for cues of safety or cues of danger. Trauma can result in encoding neutral cues, or even cues typically encoded as safe, as dangerous. Which can mean that you may logically understand that you are safe, or that you are in a situation where nothing is wrong, but your body may be telling you the opposite.

Our bodies are always sending us signals and attempting to communicate with us, we just may not always understand what it’s trying to say. I’ve seen a quote floating around lately that says; listen to your body when it whispers, and you won’t have to hear it scream. If you’ve experienced something traumatic, your body also holds these memories mostly in its muscles and fascia. That is, until it can be released. For some, this presents itself through pain or muscle tension.

“The majority of the body’s systems are adversely affected by trauma. Specifically, there is a significant disruption to gastrointestinal functioning, the cardiovascular system, immunological functioning, the reproductive system, the musculoskeletal system, neuroendocrine functioning, and finally brain structure and functioning. Not only are these systems broadly affected by symptoms, but the risk factors for development of future medical disease are exponentially greater following exposure to trauma” (D’Andrea, et al., 2011).

Let’s talk about healing 〰

Healing our wounds happens in waves.

Some trauma healing happens just by getting ourselves to a state of stability. We want to hone in on increasing feelings of safety first. With any traumatic experience, we had needs that didn’t get met — things that shouldn’t have happened or things that should have and didn’t. In order to do the deeper processing, we need to feel safe and rooted enough to go there.

Some trauma healing happens through re-connecting. Re-connecting with your body, re-connecting with your sense of self, re-connecting with others. We can use the mind-body connection to help reconnect you in to your body and your memories with tools to help support you in the moments when things feel too much.

Finding practices that help you feel safe, connected, and embodied are a good place to start.

The next wave of healing entails going deeper. This is best done with a trauma-informed therapist. Brainspotting, parts work, somatics, and self-compassion is my favorite combination when working with trauma. In order to allow your brain to reprocess these memories and allow your nervous system to regulate, we need a tool that allows us to go beyond our conscious awareness of these wounds.


If nothing else, know this. Your mind and your body are always trying to do the best they can for you and if you’ve experienced trauma all these symptoms are just signs that will take us exactly where we need to go. Healing is possible, I promise (: