Why does the body feel physically ill after experiencing emotional trauma?

Sevee has a favorite pet dog, Chikoo. Chikoo has been part of their family for almost five years until he had a terrible disease that caused his death. Sevee, after the loss of his beloved dog, became emotionally exhausted and depressed. He had sleepless nights, lost appetite, and emotionally down for the first few days. It was a traumatic experience for him.

Emotional trauma in a person can come from various causes. Life events, such as injury, accident, battling a life-threatening illness, domestic violence, bullying, loss of a loved one, career or business, the breakup of a significant relationship, or humiliating or deeply disappointing experience, etc.

These unwanted and unexpected changes in life significantly affect the emotional balance of a person and cause psychological stress and trauma. These can leave upsetting emotions, memories, and anxiety that won’t quickly go away. It can make a person isolate himself from others even with family members, and become emotionally unstable. Although some situations don’t involve physical harm, the overwhelming feeling can result in trauma. (click here for more details)

More than the emotional impact, there is an adverse effect on physical conditions, such as headaches, digestive issues, and sleep disturbances.

Scientists have looked at the different reasons, or the relationship of psychological stress to physical health. Some have considered the production of stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine during emotional trauma. Meanwhile, Stephen Porges, Ph.D., of the Kinsey Institute Traumatic Stress Research Consortium at Indiana University, found a different theory to explain the issue.

Porges believes in polyvagal theory, which suggests that the nervous system has evolved so we can feel things like intimacy and safety around others. But once a person detects danger, the other, primitive parts of the nervous system kick in. The sympathetic nervous system controls the “fight or flight” response, and the parasympathetic nervous system causes to shut down and conserve energy.  Digestion and heart rate, which are also controlled by these systems, are affected. That is why, often, emotional trauma is linked to constipation or fainting.

Also, emotional trauma is associated with long-term physical health problems. Persons who were survivors of trauma are about three times more likely prone to irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Dr. Paula Schnur has found that trauma can contribute to chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and rheumatoid arthritis.  Schnurr is a professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth, has studied the relationship between traumatic events and health complaints, especially in people with PTSD.

However, according to Bessel van der Kolk,  MD, a trauma researcher, and an author pointed out that emotional trauma doesn’t always mean health problems because there are other significant factors such as life experiences, genes, and the support from loved ones.

After all, the mind is still a part of the human body that affects a person’s overall health. The brain controls and impacts one’s response to pain, the ability to heal, and the ability to feel rested and refreshed. Mental issues like depression or anxiety may harm the usual healthy eating habits, sleeping, and exercise schedules.

Experiencing emotional trauma is not to be taken for granted, as it can become a serious health problem. If you have stress symptoms, it is crucial to have a support system from your family, friends, or persons closest to you. You may also help yourself by taking one step at a time to get back to your usual healthy habit.  Some practical ways include getting regular exercise, practicing relaxation techniques (deep breathing, meditation, yoga, tai chi, or massage). Spending time with family and friends, setting aside time for hobbies, such as reading a book or listening to music, are also helpful.

Make it a goal to find effective ways to manage your stress. Inactive ways to manage stress like binge TV watching, too much surfing the internet, or playing video games may seem relaxing at first, but they may increase anxiety over time. (click here for more details)

Each person has his capacity to handle emotional trauma and stress. A loss of a loved one, just like Celine’s experience may be too much to handle. But to some, a failing grade or a job loss can trigger to commit suicide or harm one’s self. Therefore, mindfulness is needed.  Mental health should be valued as physical health. You may not see your brain and what is happening to it every minute of your life, but you can control and manage the thought that it processes. Screening what you feed your brain, especially discarding negative thinking, might be a challenge, but you can always have a habit of looking at the brighter side in every situation.