Trauma & the Body; Shame to Pain and Back Again
When you hear the word trauma, what comes to mind?
Some of us may think "car crash," other's may visualize abuse, or a refugee fleeing a war zone. What if I told you in the psychology world, we call these types of experiences, "Big T" traumas, and while they can be extremely painful, "little T" traumas can be equally as damaging. "Little T" traumas are the seemingly innocuous, unpleasant experiences of childhood and life that most of us go through, such as being teased or rejected by peers or family, prolonged financial stress, ending a relationship or enduring a toxic work environment. Depending on your genetics, beliefs and perceptions, these experiences can have a deep and lasting impact on both your physical and psychological health. Trauma and adverse experiences that go unprocessed in the system can affect our relationship with our bodies in many ways, some on a biochemical level (van der Kolk, 2015).
Studies have shown that exposure to trauma or prolonged stress can literally change your neurochemistry! Let me explain... To help you survive threatening situations, your body will produce excess adrenaline and other excitatory hormones to make sure you have enough energy to escape danger. After a trauma, a person is vulnerable to becoming hyper-sensitive to perceived threats, lowering the threshold for "danger alarms" to sound and adrenaline to release. As you may expect, there are serious health risks associates with chronically raised adrenaline levels: increased anxiety, muscle tension and heart health issues, just to name a few. Even further, recent studies used mice to show fearful memories are passed down to their mice descendants, presenting evidence that trauma permanatly changes brain chemistry and is intergenerational!
TRAUMA, FOOD, & SHAME
Trauma has also been shown to increase sugar levels and slow overall metabolism. At the same time metabolism is going down, many people who have unprocessed trauma may use food as a coping skill to numb their pain. Almost everyone seeks to numb to some extent. Some of us avoid pain by staying busy, others use alcohol or drugs, and some use food to self-soothe. When our ancestors evolved, chewing and swallowing food literally meant we were not currently being chased by a predator, it meant that we were safe. As a result, the act of chewing and eating (especially foods high in sugar and fat) soothes the nervous system, leaving some people frustrated with their relationship with food and their bodies. As a trauma therapist, I witness the damning cycle of trauma pain, self-soothe eating, and body shame, all. too. often.
One of my mentors once told me, "the body expresses what the mouth won't say," which is something I teach to my client's when demonstrating the importance of processing emotional pain. Our bodies are our teachers. They give us signals about our emotions and they will hold our pain if we are unwilling or unable to manage it. With the help of a competent and supportive therapist, you can learn how to process even the darkest of emotions. In doing so you will rid your body of trauma's toxic impact and learn to live with compassion and peace.
Books I Recommend:
Van Der Kolk' The Body Keeps the Score.
Blood Sugar and Stress (n.d.). Retrieved from https://dtc.ucsf.edu/types-of-diabetes/type2/understanding-type-2-diabetes/how-the-body-processes-sugar/blood-sugar-stress/
Rabassa, C., & Dickenson, S. L. (2016). Impact of stress on metabolism and energy balance. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 9, 71-77.
van der Kolk, B. (2015).The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Penguin Books.