5 Physical Signs of Past Trauma That Most People Miss

Disclaimer. Do not use this article as a way to self-diagnose. If you believe that any of these symptoms apply to you, please seek professional help.

Trauma is something that many of us have had some kind of experience with. According to a study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, approximately 70% of adults in the United States have or will experience a traumatic event in their lives. 

Unless you have experienced it, most of us have a narrow idea of what trauma is. Though trauma usually affects our minds, it can also impact our bodies. 

Below are some physical manifestations of past trauma that most people miss

  • Fight or flight

During a traumatic event, your fight or flight system kicks in. Fight, flight or freeze is your body’s response to feeling endangered. This fear of being in danger does not necessarily mean violence. It can be a fear of being hurt emotionally or verbally or even the fear of having to relive a humiliating moment. Some physical manifestations triggered by a fight or flight response are a sense of hypervigilance, unsettled, or agitated. These physical manifestations are a byproduct of the traumatic event. Trauma often makes you feel as though there is a threat around the corner–a trigger. The ever-present fear of a threat is what causes anxiety and hypervigilance. 

There are various ways to treat this symptom. Mindfulness is a great tool to calm down whenever you feel overwhelmed. If you are working with a therapist, reach out to them about establishing a cognitive-behavioral treatment. CBT treatment will give you the tools necessary to re-interpret your environment and assumed threats. 

  • Chronic fatigue

Chronic fatigue can be a byproduct of many different mental health issues. Surprisingly, it is also a byproduct of past trauma. Because your body is always stressed, you may experience chronic fatigue. Fun fact, stress burns 8.5 calories an hour. This is primarily due to an accelerated heart rate. However, this is countered by raised levels of cortisol. I digress. 

However, this caloric deficit is not the reason why you are always tired. It is because your body is not designed to feel stressed at all times. Fight or flight is meant to happen in short bursts, not sustained periods. During fight or flight, there is a cascade of hormones that are released. There is an interplay between adrenaline and cortisol, and it is precisely this interplay that leads to chronic fatigue. 

Studies show the comorbidity between chronic fatigue and trauma. It states that those with PTSD are eight-time likelier to develop chronic fatigue. 

Luckily, there are techniques to help you deal with stress. The most popular is meditation. Do not feel daunted by meditating. There are many educational apps and online guides to help you meditate.

  • Chronic Pain 

Many traumatic events can sometimes cause physical pain. An obvious example would be a soldier who has lost a limb. However, there are other subtle ways that trauma causes pain. 

There have been countless studies that further cement the mind-body link–showing how our emotions physically affect us. We now know that physical distress leads to mental distress and vice versa. For someone who has experienced past trauma, they might experience chronic back pain or joint pain. Recently, there have been various studies analyzing trauma and chronic pain, specifically fibromyalgia. A study published in 2018 found that patients who experience childhood trauma reported higher fibromyalgia symptoms. Other studies delve into the neuronal structure of how we perceive trauma and also its effect on our pain reception. Long story short, these neurotransmitters are connected. 

If you experience chronic pain as a result of trauma, make sure you work conjointly with your physician and therapist to address both the psychological and physiological repercussions of trauma.

  •  GI distress.

So, this point is an annexation of the previous point. Gastrointestinal distress is an unknown and underrated physical manifestation of past trauma. I’m sure you have experienced it in the past in the form of nausea or gassiness right before a big presentation. If you have never felt this way, congrats.

Gastrointestinal distress as a result of trauma is more than temporary discomfort. It can lead to intestinal problems such as inflammation, dysfunction, or irritation. The gut houses so many necessary neurotransmitters and is in constant communication with the brain. Hence, why you should pay attention to unexplained intestinal issues. 

  • Chronic headaches.

Our bodies often harbor tension and stress in different places of the body. The most popular stress storage is the upper body, specifically the head and neck. 

Headaches are often tied to stress, and stress is often a signal of past trauma. If you experience frequent migraines, unless you have a condition that produces frequent headaches, you should consider unresolved trauma as a possible cause. 

There are different ways to treat tension headaches. Applying a cold or hot, whichever you prefer, is a good alternative. However, the best alternative is to try to resolve your trauma. Work with a mental health professional is highly recommended. 

Working with a licensed mental health professional will teach you techniques that will help you deal with the traumatic events in your life. One of the most recent treatments is called somatic experiencingSomatic experiencing therapy focuses on the mind-body connection, and it aims to address both physical and psychological symptoms of events like grief, trauma, anxiety, and depression. First, it treats the physical manifestations of the trauma (pain, tension, and digestive concerns). After the physical manifestations are addressed, many patients find it easier to discuss the psychological symptoms. 

If you are interested or want to learn more about this topic, please let us know in the comments below. Hope this article has been useful to you. 

Take care! 

Sources:

Castillo, Renan C., et al. “Prevalence of Chronic Pain Seven Years Following Limb Threatening Lower Extremity Trauma.” Pain, No Longer Published by Elsevier, 15 June 2006, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304395906002417. 

Dansie, Elizabeth J et al. “The comorbidity of self-reported chronic fatigue syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, and traumatic symptoms.” Psychosomatics vol. 53,3 (2012): 250-7. doi:10.1016/j.psym.2011.08.007

Gündüz, Nermin et al. “Psychiatric comorbidity and childhood trauma in fibromyalgia syndrome.” Turkish journal of physical medicine and rehabilitation vol. 64,2 91-99. 25 Feb. 2018, doi:10.5606/tftrd.2018.1470

Harvard Health Publishing. “Understanding the Stress Response.” Harvard Health, Mar. 2011, www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response. 

JAMA and Archives Journals. “Stress, Childhood Trauma Linked To Chronic Fatigue Syndrome In Adults.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 November 2006. 

Kiesel, Laura. “Chronic Pain and Childhood Trauma.” Harvard Health Blog, 2 Apr. 2018, www.health.harvard.edu/blog/chronic-pain-and-childhood-trauma-2018033012768. 

Kozlowska, Kasia et al. “Fear and the Defense Cascade: Clinical Implications and Management.” Harvard review of psychiatry vol. 23,4 (2015): 263-87. doi:10.1097/HRP.0000000000000065

MayoClinic. “Chronic Stress Puts Your Health at Risk.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 19 Mar. 2019, www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037. 

MedCircle, and Judy Ho. “5 Physical Signs of Past Trauma That Most People Miss.” MedCircle, YouTube, 26 Feb. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hUpofqO98Q. 

Moghim, Robert. “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Chronic Pain.” Colorado Pain Care, Colorado Pain Care, 4 Oct. 2019, coloradopaincare.com/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-and-chronic-pain/. 

Stam, R et al. “Trauma and the gut: interactions between stressful experience and intestinal function.” Gut vol. 40,6 (1997): 704-9. doi:10.1136/gut.40.6.704

Yang, Seoyon, and Min Cheol Chang. “Chronic Pain: Structural and Functional Changes in Brain Structures and Associated Negative Affective States.” International journal of molecular sciences vol. 20,13 3130. 26 Jun. 2019, doi:10.3390/ijms20133130

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