Trauma Ignites Stress Hormones

The impact on the body of unresolved, significant trauma.

Witnessing Trauma Word CloudMost of us can think about a time when we were startled, frightened, felt threatened or put in a place of high stress. In these moments, our bodies take over and our heart rate usually surges. We feel this wave of energy streaming through our bodies as we prepare to either fight or run away. These are the normal responses to feeling as if we are in some kind of danger – the proverbial fight-flight response. It’s our body and brain’s way of protecting us when there is danger.

With someone with unresolved, significant trauma, there are some major differences in how their body experiences stressful moments. Because unresolved trauma causes the mind and the brain to function at a higher stress level almost all the time, the various neurochemicals, (brain hormones) are primed to be released in much larger amounts and much more often than in someone who is not living with unresolved trauma.

Bessel van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score provides some important information.  “Adrenaline is one of the hormones that are critical to help us fight back or flee in the face of danger… Under normal conditions people react to a threat with a temporary increase in their stress hormones. As soon as the threat is over, the hormones dissipate and the body returns to normal. The stress hormones of traumatized people, in contrast, take much longer to return to baseline and spike quickly and disproportionately in response to mildly stressful stimuli. The insidious effects of constantly elevated stress hormones include memory and attention problems, irritability, and sleep disorders. They also contribute to many long-term health issues, depending on which body system is most vulnerable in a particular individual.”

He goes on to share that some people go into a place of denial when they feel threatened with their conscious minds acting as if everything is okay. “However, even though the mind may learn to ignore the messages from the emotional brain, the alarm signals don’t stop. The emotional brain keeps working, and stress hormones keep sending signals to the muscles to transfer action or immobilize and collapse.”

Psychological trouble and mental health adversity crisis as a tree shaped as a human head being torn or stressed by strong winds as a psychiatry or psychology iconIt is important to appreciate both the short- and long-term impact of significant, unresolved trauma or overwhelming, chronic toxic stress to the body’s neurochemical responses. This information can help explain why someone might react to what might be seen as a minor threat as if something catastrophic was happening.

In a person with significant unresolved trauma, we can learn to appreciate that they cannot control what may seem like excessively strong reactions. Being loving and understanding of the fact that they are not trying to be difficult or unreasonable is a huge gift that can also contribute to them being able to calm more quickly and easily.

“Wow, it looks like that just really threw you and you are feeling very anxious right now. It may be reminding you of a time when you were in real danger and your body is now acting as if you are there again. You probably just had a bunch of brain hormones released that is adding to your stress right now. It may take a few minutes for those hormones to dissipate. Meanwhile, take some deep, calming breaths and maybe a drink of cold water. Remind yourself you are safe and okay. I’m happy to stay here with you until you feel a little calmer.”

Young woman with anxiety and fears worrying about her problems

Sometimes we can feel annoyed when somebody seems to be overreacting to a situation. We can be confused or frustrated that they can’t just pull themselves together. Knowing there are neurobiological reasons for people to become what seems like overly stressed can help us all be more accepting, appreciative and caring of the person who struggles with unresolved trauma.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Recall a time when you were startled, scared, threatened or stressed. These are moments when your body released neurochemicals like adrenaline. Think about how your body reacted. What happened to your heart rate and sense of being in a state of high alert.
  2. If you are someone with significant unresolved trauma, how often do you feel yourself go to this place of high stress? How much do you remain in this place of higher alert? How does that impact your life?
  3. If you are someone with significant unresolved trauma, what are some ways you can help reduce your levels of stress that are based more on the impact of that unresolved trauma than some normal response to moments of being startled, scared, threatened or stressed?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute