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How do you know if you have trauma in your body?

Trauma can have a profound impact on both your mental and physical health. Traumatic experiences like abuse, neglect, violence, disasters, or accidents can leave lasting effects on your body and mind. Oftentimes, trauma survivors may not even realize the ways trauma continues to impact them physically. Learning to recognize the signs of trauma in your body is an important first step in the healing process.

What is trauma?

Trauma refers to any disturbing or distressing event that overwhelms your ability to cope and leaves you feeling helpless and emotionally overwhelmed. Trauma can refer to a single event or repeated or prolonged exposure to abusive or terrifying experiences. While many associate trauma with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), you don’t need to meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD to be impacted by trauma. Any distressing or shocking experience can potentially lead to trauma responses in your body and mind.

Trauma can include:

– Physical abuse
– Sexual abuse or assault
– Emotional or psychological abuse
– Neglect
– Loss of a loved one
– Natural disasters
– Accidents or injuries
– War or political violence
– Witnessing violence
– Sudden loss of housing
– Bullying
– Hospitalization
– Surgery or invasive medical procedures
– Life-threatening illness

The effects of trauma vary from person to person and depend on factors like your age when the trauma occurred, the duration and intensity of the trauma, available support systems, and your individual coping abilities.

How trauma impacts the body

When you experience something threatening or traumatic, it activates your body’s stress response. Your amygdala sends signals to your hypothalamus, which activates your autonomic nervous system. This includes:

– Increased heart rate and blood pressure
– Rapid breathing
– Sweating
– Dilation of pupils

These physical responses prepare you to respond to the threat either by fighting, fleeing, or freezing. The stress hormone cortisol is released, which can also impact your brain.

While this stress response is your body’s natural reaction to perceived danger, prolonged or repeated trauma can cause these alarm systems in your body to become over-reactive. Your body stays in a constant state of increased arousal, continuously on guard for the next threat.

Over time, the chronic stress of trauma takes a toll on your body. Some common physical effects of trauma include:

– Chronic pain like headaches, stomach aches, joint pain
– Muscle tension and problems with coordination
– Digestive issues like diarrhea, constipation, nausea
– Dizziness, chest pain, heart palpitations
– Problems with sleep and constant fatigue
– Being easily startled by loud noises or being touched unexpectedly
– Autoimmune disorders
– Skin conditions like eczema or rashes

Trauma survivors may also engage in risky behaviors like overeating, substance abuse, self-harm, or unsafe sex in an attempt to cope with their distress. This can lead to additional health problems.

The way trauma manifests physically varies for each person. Sometimes the physical symptoms may seem unrelated to the traumatic experience. Many trauma survivors don’t make the connection between their physical symptoms and the lingering effects of past trauma.

Signs of trauma stored in the body

Trauma is not just an event that happened in your past – it can leave lasting impacts on your physical health and body. Here are some of the common signs that trauma may be stored in your body:

Chronic tension

If you frequently feel knots in your shoulders or tightness in your neck and back, this muscular tension could be linked to trauma. Trauma leaves your body continually on guard, leading to constricted muscles as part of the fight-or-flight response. Places you may notice tension include:

– Jaw
– Neck
– Shoulders
– Upper and lower back
– Chest

Poor breathing habits

When you feel threatened or unsafe, your breathing speeds up in preparation for danger. Some people unconsciously retain these uneven breathing patterns even after trauma. Shallow breathing or holding your breath can reduce oxygen levels, increasing anxiety and muscle tension.

Gastrointestinal problems

There is a strong connection between your gastrointestinal system and emotions. Trauma can manifest physically with symptoms like:

– Stomach ulcers
– Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
– Frequent diarrhea or constipation
– Nausea
– Pain

These may indicate your digestive system is stuck in hyperarousal mode.

Pelvic floor dysfunction

The pelvic floor includes the muscles supporting your bladder, bowel, and reproductive organs. Pelvic floor tightness is common in trauma survivors, especially with sexual trauma. This can contribute to issues like:

– Painful sexual intercourse
– Urinary incontinence
– Constipation

Autoimmune disorders

Traumatic stress is linked to increased inflammation levels and lower immune system functioning. This makes trauma survivors more susceptible to autoimmune conditions like:

– Fibromyalgia
– Chronic fatigue syndrome
– Rheumatoid arthritis
– Lupus

Numbness or lack of sensation

Some traumatized people experience emotional numbness or disconnect from their bodies as a defense mechanism. This can manifest physically with reduced sensation and feeling numb in certain body parts.

Heart problems

The rapid heart rate, chest pain, and palpitations trauma triggers can increase risk for future cardiovascular issues like heart attacks.

Frequent headaches

Stress can cause muscle tension that leads to recurring tension headaches or migraines.

Skin reactions

The hormonal changes of trauma can increase inflammation, which may worsen skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis.

When to seek help

If your physical symptoms are causing significant distress or interfering with your daily functioning, it’s a good idea to seek help from a trauma-informed professional.

A doctor can check that your symptoms are not indicative of any medical emergency. However, for trauma-related physical problems, you may benefit more by seeing a mental health provider.

Therapists who specialize in treating trauma survivors can help you to:

– Identify links between past trauma and current physical problems
– Process and release trauma stored in the body
– Calm your nervous system using somatic therapy techniques
– Improve body awareness and responses through sensorimotor therapy
– Release muscle tension and relieve pain using massage, yoga, or other bodywork

You may also benefit from complementary approaches like acupuncture, meditation, or craniosacral therapy.

With professional support, you can ease trauma-related physical symptoms and improve your daily functioning and well-being. The important first step is recognizing how trauma may be impacting you physically so you can start your healing process.

Coping strategies

While professional treatment is recommended for addressing significant trauma held in your body, there are some self-care practices you can try at home to help ease your physical symptoms:

Progressive muscle relaxation: Systematically tense and relax muscle groups to reduce tension.

Diaphragmatic breathing: Practice slow belly breathing to lower stress hormones.

Yoga: Gentle yoga can relax your nervous system and loosen tight muscles.

Exercise: Release feel-good endorphins through aerobic exercise.

Hot baths: Warm water helps relax muscles and reduce pain signals.

Massage: Massage therapy can reduce muscle knots, improve circulation.

Meditation: Quiet your mind and tune into your body’s needs.

Healthy diet: Nutrient-dense anti-inflammatory foods support healing.

Nature: Spending time outdoors in nature has calming effects.

Sleep: Prioritize getting enough quality sleep to help your body recover.

While these lifestyle measures can help you feel better and stay regulated day-to-day, trauma-focused therapy is recommended for resolving the root causes of lingering physical trauma.

Somatic experiencing technique for releasing trauma

Somatic therapy is a body-based approach designed specifically for healing trauma and releasing it from your nervous system and body.

One of the most effective methods is somatic experiencing developed by Dr. Peter Levine. This approach helps “discharge” the stalled defensive energy still trapped in your body from past traumatic experiences.

Some of the somatic techniques used include:

Tracking body sensations: Your therapist helps you tune into subtle body sensations and notice where you hold tension or constriction. This builds awareness.

Pendulation: You move between states of relative tension and states of relaxation by slowing down your breathing. This “pendulates” between sensations.

Titration: You briefly touch into disturbing sensations, then retreat to a place of safety and comfort. This slowly discharges difficult feelings.

Discharging: Through shaking, deep breathing, sounds, or movement, you release some of the pent-up trauma energy held in your body.

Grounding: You reconnect to the present moment by feeling your feet on the floor or noticing details in the room. This calms the nervous system.

With somatic experiencing, you discharge a little bit of the trauma at a time so you don’t get overwhelmed. This allows your nervous system to reset itself to a healthier baseline.

Over time, you release the trauma, ease chronic tension, restore a sense of safety in your body, and reclaim your health and well-being. Somatic therapy provides lasting relief from persistent physical trauma symptoms.


Trauma leaves lasting impacts on both your body and mind. Physical symptoms like muscle tension, breathing issues, gastrointestinal problems, numbness, and chronic pain can stem from past traumatic experiences.

If you notice possible signs trauma continues to inhabit your body, don’t ignore them. Seeking professional support can help you to heal both physically and mentally through trauma-focused talk therapy and somatic experiencing techniques.

With compassionate care, you can ease your physical discomfort, restore a sense of safety in your body, resolve trauma stored on a cellular level, and greatly improve your overall health and daily functioning.