Once our immune system receives the signal that we are in a near-constant state of threat, it over and over again produces substances that trigger inflammation throughout the body.
Traumas disrupt the physical balance
As we know from the ACEs test, trauma increases our chances of developing multiple physical and mental illnesses, from depression and anxiety to heart attacks, cancer, obesity, and stroke. The research is irrefutable: people with unresolved trauma get sicker and die younger.
The ways trauma affects the body are varied and complex, and all forms of physical dysfunction share one common denominator: stress. Stress is more than just a psychological condition; it is an inner state that affects homeostasis. Homeostasis is a state of physical, emotional, and mental balance.
We experience a physiological stress response when our brain perceives that we do not have sufficient resources to survive an obstacle or threat (this is your general state when you have unresolved trauma). Addiction and stress expert Gabor Maté, who wrote When the body says no , among other things, calls this the ‘relationship between stress and illness.
When we are stressed, the body is no longer focused on maintaining homeostasis, the state of general well-being and balance, but on self-protection. Stress is inevitable (trying to avoid stress is stressful too!). Normative stress, for example, is a natural part of life: birth, death, marriage, divorce, and job loss are all things we experience as humans. In response to this, we can develop coping strategies so that we can return to our basic psychological and physiological states.
For example, we look for supportive aids, we learn how to calm ourselves, and we help our nervous system to restore homeostasis. This process of getting rid of and returning to our base state is called allostasis. This process allows us to develop biological resilience.
Fight or flight
You are probably familiar with the body’s stress response, often referred to as our fight or flight response. Fight and flight are two instinctive, automatic responses the body exhibits to stress (the third response is freeze or block). When we experience something as threatening, the brain’s fear center, the amygdala, is activated. Then the amygdala sends the message that we are under attack to the rest of our bodies, prompting the various body systems to mobilize the necessary rescue forces so that we survive.
The consequences of chronic stress
While normative stress helps us grow and adapt, chronic stress — persistent stress that is constantly present — wears us out and damages every system in our bodies. When we are chronically stressed and unable to restore homeostasis—because we have never learned or developed adaptive coping strategies or the stress is too overwhelming to handle—some body systems become overactive and others are suppressed. In chronic stress, our adrenal glands continuously produce cortisol and other stress hormones, such as adrenaline.
Stress also activates the immune system, making it very alert and ready to spring into action at the slightest suspicion that something is wrong. Once our immune system receives the signal that we are in a near-constant state of threat, it over and over again produces substances that trigger inflammation throughout the body. These substances act as a fire starter for a variety of symptoms that indicate imbalance and dysfunction, increasing the risk of developing autoimmune diseases, chronic pain, and other diseases ranging from heart disease to cancer*.
If the immune system constantly gives inflammatory substances the wrong commands, the body can respond less and less well to real diseases. At the same time, inflammation occurs all over the body and can even affect the brain. Inflammation in the brain has been identified in various forms of psychological dysfunction and mental illness, ranging from depression and anxiety to psychoses.
Given the damage this can do, it is very important that you calm an overactive fight or flight response. If you don’t do anything about it, or get stuck in this reaction, your immune system will continue to trigger inflammatory responses throughout your body. “As long as the trauma is not resolved,” Bessel van der Kolk wrote in The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma“The stress hormones the body secretes to protect itself continue to circulate in the body.
” The body must also expend an inordinate amount of energy “suppressing the inner chaos” of the trauma, or of the activated fight-or-flight response, which forces us even further into a disordered state. It’s a vicious circle, a physiological loop that repeats itself over and over.
Stress affects every system of the body, including the gut. It is therefore no coincidence that people with an anxiety disorder very often have problems with their gastrointestinal tract. When we are stressed, or scared or anxious, our bodies are less able to digest food and the food can either be held for too long – resulting in constipation – or released too quickly – resulting in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or diarrhea.
So it is very important to work on your unprocessed traumas and reduce chronic stress. The best step to processing trauma is to be guided by a good psychologist or therapist. They are specialized in trauma processing and psychological complaints. If you haven’t found this help yet, you can already start limiting stress reactions.