Understanding How Trauma Impacts Your Health

Body and Mind Matters: Understanding How Trauma Impacts Your Health

June 24, 2024

Due to stigma and a lack of sound information on traumatic experiences, laypeople can find it especially difficult to navigate the often far-reaching effects of trauma.  As a Life and Wellness Coach, Psychotherapist, and Fitness Trainer with extensive experience in crisis intervention and acute care, I have often been tasked with trying to explain the impact of trauma on health. I define “trauma” as one’s response to a disconcerting experience that overwhelms a person. It’s a subjective response to events caused by natural disasters and events (e.g., hurricanes, fires, and the death of a loved one) as well as those caused by other humans, such as physical violence, childhood abuse, medical treatments, accidents, and wars.

Understanding How Trauma Impacts Your Health

The American Psychological Association (APA) indicates that trauma “results in significant fear, helplessness, dissociation, confusion, or other disruptive feelings intense enough to have a long-lasting negative effect on a person’s attitudes, behavior, and other aspects of functioning.” Since traumatic events tend to seem unfair and unpredictable, many individuals question their worldview following trauma.

According to the Veterans’ Association, about 90% of Americans have had at least one traumatic event during their lifetimes. I would venture to say that all of us have experienced trauma, of varying degrees, at some point in our lives. The collective trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic, political upheaval, and world wars readily come to mind. 

Traumatic Events Can Cause A Wide-Range Of Consequences

Traumatic events can cause a wide-range of psychological, emotional, spiritual, physical, social, and financial consequences. In the initial aftermath of trauma, many individuals experience exhaustion as muscles and the rest of the body’s systems attempt to return to equilibrium. Although there are many common symptoms of trauma, such as sleeplessness, confusion, numbness, grief, and anxiety, it is imperative to remember that everyone will react to trauma in their own unique way. Generally, psychological effects may be more noticeable at first.  Survivors may struggle to cope with day-to-day functioning due to overwhelming anxiety, depression, fear, insomnia, and even flashbacks. Interventions, such as working with a trauma-informed therapist who you trust and feel safe with, can help mitigate some of these symptoms as well as the risk for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

Fortunately, the link between mind and body health has become more established within the medical community and society at large. It should come as no surprise, then, that the aforementioned psychological effects of trauma can be accompanied by a wide array of physical symptoms. Traumatic stressors initiate involuntary physiological responses in our bodies in order to adapt and survive. These responses are as unique as our genes, life experiences, brain functioning, and coping mechanisms. They are natural survival responses that can trigger inflammation and other health issues, including heart disease, stroke, cancer, autoimmune diseases, depression, weight gain, memory issues, and diabetes.   Since these natural responses are not entirely within our control, it is important to employ excellent self-care techniques always, and especially during times of extreme stress.

One such self-care technique would be to not dwell on the “what-if’s” of developing a physical disease. Keep medical appointments, but recognize that there are some things beyond our control.

In a nutshell, trauma affects the body’s stress response system – something called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. As a result, hormones including cortisol, adrenaline, and oxytocin can be thrown off kilter, making survivors extra sensitive to stressors. One way to restore equilibrium in the body, relax tense muscles, and improve sleep quality is to participate in mild to moderate exercise, such as walking or lifting light weights. Doing so can help to reduce cortisol (a stress hormone) and increase oxytocin (a mood-boosting hormone) naturally. Add in soothing music, and you’ve got a one-two punch! Healthy nutrition, supportive social connections, and limiting harmful substances (e.g., alcohol, recreational drugs, and cigarettes) can go a long way in restoring the body’s stress response system.

Reduce Stress On A Daily Basis

Although trauma and hardships are part of life, we can learn and grow from such challenges.  See my blog post on post-traumatic growth.) Remember to reduce stress on a daily basis, regardless of the circumstances. Consider working with a qualified coach who can teach you self-care techniques, healthy coping mechanisms, and mindfulness, as well as offer honest feedback, support, and accountability.

Is there something on your mind that you would like me to address in upcoming columns?  Submit your comments and questions to me here.

Coach Jenna Nocera, MA, MFT, CLSC, CPFT is a Life & Wellness Coach, Psychotherapist, and Personal Fitness Trainer

Understanding How Trauma Impacts Your Health


Coach Jenna Nocera, MA, MFT, CLSC, CPFT is a Life & Wellness Coach, Psychotherapist, and Personal Fitness Trainer with advanced degrees in Behavioral Science, Psychology, and Marriage and Family Therapy. She works with clients to redesign their lifestyle habits. Subscribe to the Formula For Excellence® newsletter to receive a Free Habit Tracker and occasional health and wellness tips. Read more articles by Coach Jenna!