As humans we are an extremely resilient species. We have beaten the odds, surviving extinction and becoming top of the food chain, creating an existence that is almost unrecognisable from where we started out.
But although our capacity to survive is unrivalled, our ability to thrive is a different story.
Humans can be brutal to each other; many of us have suffered at the hands of others. This leaves us with deep emotional scars that have an impact on both our physical and psychological wellbeing, preventing us from living a life in which we can thrive.
Trauma is not just something that is experienced by ex-war veterans or victims of horrific accidents; many of us have experienced trauma, from physical, sexual and emotional abuse to neglect and abandonment.
Countless studies have now shown us, that if you experience trauma as a child, you are more susceptible to mental illness, obesity and poor health as an adult.
Since the early 1990s, FMRI brain imaging equipment has given us a greater insight into how the brain is affected by trauma and the results have been both startling and fascinating.
The impact of trauma on the brain and the body
One important aspect that is now very clear to us, is that the body and the mind are not separate entities.
If the brain is experiencing frequent activation of its alarm system, we know that when this happens, our heart rate rises, our breathing quickens and our immune system is temporarily suppressed.
There is evidence to show that people who have experienced trauma have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their system; it tends to spike quickly and often disproportionately in relation to the threat that is faced. It also takes longer for the chemical to dissipate.
The damaging effects of too much cortisol in our systems are now widely known, as research has shown chronic stress to be related to heart disease, diabetes and inflammation of the organs.
We often relate this to stressed out 50-something business people, but rarely to people who suffered from trauma at a young age.
The role of trauma in stress regulation
One of the most telling findings about traumatised people is the activation of specific parts of the brain.
The amygdala is the emotional centre of our brain; it governs our fight or flight response and its sole purpose is to keep us safe and alive. This part of the brain receives information from the outside world and determines whether or not what is happening is perceived as a threat. We can think of it like our own personal alarm system.
But like the irritating car alarms that go off unnecessarily when somebody simply brushes against the vehicle, our alarm systems too can be overactive and inaccurate in sensing whether something is really a threat or not.
This part of our brain is shaped in response to our experiences. So if, through trauma at a young age, you learn that the world isn’t a safe place, that there is not a primary care giver that will take care of you or that there is a threat of violence around every corner, your amygdala will in turn learn to be overactive, always on guard and ready to prepare you for any threat that you may encounter.
When we are in fight or flight mode, our amygdala is activated but the rational, cognitive part of our brain shuts down; this is to ensure our survival. We are driven by emotions at this stage and unable to think rationally, which makes stress regulation even more difficult.
It’s important to bear in mind that we all have a different tolerance to stress and a low tolerance could be a result of early life circumstances completely beyond that individual’s control.
The undeniable link between trauma and mental illness
One longitudinal study indicates that a childhood experience of trauma can double the risk of experiencing mental health conditions later on in life.2
When an event triggers the trauma of previous experiences, the amygdala activates, as if the individual is re-living the traumatic event. It cannot distinguish between past and present. It’s why we often find ourselves overreacting to a seemingly small situation. We all have triggers, but some of ours are more sensitive than others.
If our brains are stuck in survival mode, there is little room for building healthy, loving relationships; one of the cornerstones of positive mental health. If we cannot feel safe in the close company of others, our ability to build social bonds will be compromised and as social creatures, this can literally be fatal.
Studies have shown how people who experience loneliness over a long period are at a higher risk of premature death.1
Bessel Van De Kolk, a psychiatrist and trauma expert, reports in his book The Body Keeps the Score (2014); “Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives…For our physiology to calm down, heal and grow we need a visceral feeling of safety.”
This is hard to achieve when we get caught in the viscous cycle of trauma; an overactive amygdala leaves us feeling threatened, panicky and over-cautious, affecting every relationship in our lives.
The good news is, there are a range of professionals now specialising in treating complex trauma and a range of treatment options available. The important thing to understand is that talking therapy is not the answer for everyone.
Often there is a reintegration of the mind and body required and a re-organisation of our central nervous system, which can sometimes take place through dance, music & play therapy, mindfulness and yoga and EMDR therapy among others.
1. Hakulinen C, Pulkki-Råback L, Virtanen M, et al, Social isolation and loneliness as risk factors for myocardial infarction, stroke and mortality: UK Biobank cohort study of 479 054 men and women, Heart 2018;104:1536-1542.
2. Ingrid Torjesen, Childhood trauma doubles risk of mental health conditions, BMJ 2019;364:l854
About the Author
Mel Crate is a wellbeing coach, mindfulness teacher and the founding director of Luminate, a training consultancy working with organisations to improve mental health, happiness and wellbeing.