Trauma and the Physical Body
Trauma and the Physical Body by Dr Melanie Salmon
Chronic pain is not always the result of physical injury, it may be the body’s response to a traumatic event
Not only damaging to our mental health, trauma can also have an incredible impact on our physical body. Some chronic pain complaints, for example, can be attributed to residual trauma, our body responding to past events through muscle tensing.
So, what is chronic pain? What types of chronic pain are psychological? And how can past trauma affect our current physical state?
What is chronic pain?
In the UK, around 28 million adults are affected by some type of chronic pain (42% of the population) and globally, more than 1.5 billion (American Academy of Pain Medicine). That’s 18% of the world’s population.
Chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts for at least 12 weeks, although it may in fact last for several years. It can limit your mobility and reduce your flexibility, strength, and endurance, making it challenging to get through daily tasks and activities.
Collectively, we can categorise chronic pain as somatogenic pain (the cause is found within the structure of the body, the ‘soma’) and psychogenic pain, with the most common types of pain (across both categories) including headache; post-physical trauma pain; lower back pain; arthritis pain; neurogenic pain (pain caused by nerve damage); and psychogenic pain. The latter describes pain that isn’t caused by disease or nerve damage, the cause is thought to be in the mind.
Trauma and the physical body: psychogenic pain
Psychogenic pain is chronic, disabling pain that is primarily caused by psychological factors. Factors such as beliefs, emotions, fears, or mental illness – like depression or anxiety – can trigger, exacerbate, or maintain pain that started in an innocuous way, such as an accident or fall.
Dr Robert Scaer (amongst others) has shown that chronic stress and trauma has a profound impact on the entire mind-body system, resulting in disease, sometimes decades later.
Scaer studied the ‘diseases of the freeze’ – those diseases originating from a dysregulated autonomic nervous system – as a result of trauma. This includes chronic psychogenic pain.
He showed that the majority of what we consider to be ‘arthritis’ of the neck and back is in fact myofascial pain associated with stress and trauma. An MRI scan shows no relationship with pathology.
Trauma and the physical body: myofascial pain syndrome
Myofascial pain syndrome (MPS) is a description of muscle pain: pain and inflammation in the body’s soft tissues. A chronic condition that affects the fascia (connective tissue that covers the muscles), it may involve either a single muscle or a muscle group.
Myofascial and related chronic pain is often traceable to complex childhood trauma and is always distributed through the back. This can be explained by understanding the back’s role in protecting us from physical trauma or threat. When threatened with violence, the back will step in to protect the body; the muscles of the core are intensely activated, pulling the body into a contracted foetal position for self-defence.
Picture a five-year-old child who waits for her father to come home. A bully, her father often threatens to beat the children when they’re naughty and walks through the door shouting. Immediately her body reacts by moving into a defensive position.
If she’s safe enough to do so, she’ll curl up into a foetal position to get the best protection she can. However, if she is unable, she will form an incomplete foetal position. Her body will still want to contract but can’t. This incomplete foetal position will be stored in her muscle memory: tense and trying to contract without being able to.
The emotional memory of this event is stored in the muscle groups involved in the defence forever afterwards; the emotional memory of trying to defend. The neural pathways are set, and in later life when the body experiences chronic stress – any stress – all these muscles will contract as they always did before, pulling tight into the same type of protective response. Instead of pulling the body into a foetal position, however, the muscles of the back and neck ache with widespread myofascial pain.
This type of pain is uniquely stress-related.
Neglect and the physical body: example case study
Trauma may lead to a life of low-grade sustained vigilance, sensitive to environmental as well as internal triggers.
If you can imagine a child that was repeatedly bullied from the age of six years old, while trying to find their place in the world and connect with society, they are rejected and lack social bonding. At home, parents are absent because they work all the time and therefore don’t offer sufficient care-giver support.
The child grows up with low self-esteem, feeling unworthy and unsafe in the world; trust in them and others is diminished. They may develop an inability to express themselves and repress their emotions for fear of punishment, judgement, or rejection.
When confronted with a difficult situation, they bottle their emotions and feel internal anguish, repeatedly releasing toxic stress chemicals into the body.
Their immune system is compromised, making them more susceptible to illness. Over time, they develop chronic pain.
Healing trauma: body and mind
What has emerged from pioneers in the field of epigenetics and neuroscience, is an understanding of the importance of healing past trauma – and doing so by working with the subconscious mind.
While we cannot go back in time and ‘un-experience’ a traumatic event, our history is imprinted within us, crystallizing as our core beliefs or “truths”. To effectively heal from our past we must bypass the rational mind and access the source of our belief systems.
Using the QEC method, we are able to change the belief systems and conditioning
that no longer serve us. The neuroplasticity of the brain allows us to ‘rewire’ our neural pathways, freeing us from the limitations of our past.
In this way, we can fundamentally change the way we feel about ourselves and the world around us.
Most commonly used for working with trauma, depression, grief and loss, stress, health and relationships, you can learn more about QEC here.