Trauma & Physical Symptoms

Physical symptoms of traumaWhile many people seek therapy for psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression, they may not consider psychotherapy to alleviate physical pain. Many sufferers of physical symptoms including back pain, digestive problems, fatigue, sleep disturbances and many other body-based problems will seek out medical doctors, specialists, and physical therapists. They are trying to diagnose and heal their physical symptoms and become frustrated and confused when the medical system seems to offer no relief. While it’s understandable that we would seek physical relief for our physical problems, it’s important to consider psychological explanations for pain and illnesses.

In recent years we, as a society, are developing more of an understanding of the mind-body connection. Research is being conducted on the effects of traumatic experiences, particularly childhood abuse and neglect. These studies are finding a strong connection between past experiences of abuse and current physical pains and symptoms. As Bessel van der Kolk writes in his groundbreaking book The Body Keeps The Score, “Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Many patients respond to stress not by noticing and naming it but by developing migraine headaches or asthma attacks.”

Many physical pains, therefore, can be a sign of past unresolved trauma. When children are exposed to chronic danger, fear, and fight/flight responses their underdeveloped immune systems sustain damage. This damage, as well as ongoing overactivation of stress hormones in the body can lead to a compromised immune system in adulthood. This vulnerability makes adults more sensitive to stress and the development of physical symptoms and illnesses. In addition, many individuals traumatized as children may not have had anyone safe to turn to for comfort and support. As a result they’ve never been able to express their feelings of fear, rage, helplessness, and shame. These emotions become compartmentalized and frozen in the body and mind, causing both physical and psychological distress.

Important note: It is ALWAYS recommended that individuals with physical pains and symptoms seek out physicians and other healthcare professionals to rule out medical diagnoses and explanations for their distress.

In the absence of a medical diagnosis, it can be very helpful to engage in therapy to heal past trauma and alleviate current physical distress. As van der Kolk writes the goal is to “Reestablish ownership of your body and your mind – of your self. This means feeling free to know what you know and to feel what you feel without becoming overwhelmed, enraged, ashamed, or collapsed.” And without suffering through unnecessary physical pain and ailments.

The way we heal and grow is by befriending our bodies, by getting to know the sensations and feelings happening inside. As we get to know ourselves we are less afraid of what we notice. And by giving a voice to our past experiences we can process previously frozen emotions and reactions. If we can express appropriate anger, grief, and sadness those feelings no longer have to be stuck inside, causing discomfort. And by becoming psychologically healthier you’ll be less vulnerable to the stresses of everyday life. This process allows not only the healing of trauma but an opportunity to live a more whole and free life.

Disclaimer: The content provided here is intended for informational purposes only. Reading articles and content on this website does not constitute a therapeutic relationship.

Written by Katrina Taylor

Katrina Taylor, LMFTA, is a therapist in private practice in Austin, TX.