How Unprocessed Trauma Affects Your Body and Your Brain
Updated: Feb 27, 2020
Your brain is one of the most incredible organs you have. Neuro-scientists are learning more and more about how the brain works every day and the incredible way it processes trauma and negative life experiences.
Untreated past trauma can completely take over your health. Not just emotional health, but physical health too. The emotional and physical reactions trauma triggers can make you more prone to serious health conditions including heart attack, stroke, obesity, diabetes, and cancer, according to Harvard Medical School research.
Think Of Your Brain As Modeling Clay
The book The Whole-Brained Child by Dr. Daniel Siegel goes into fascinating depth on the composition of our brains and how they truly function. Thinking of the brain as modeling clay explains how our brains have molded into the way they are today and how we can physically rewire the pathways that were created from our past. You have a left side of your brain that thinks logically and helps construct thoughts into sentences. You have a right side of your brain that helps you experience emotions and read non-verbal cues. You have parts that help you act with instinct and make split-second survival decisions. You have parts that control connections and relationships. You also have parts that lead you to memory, and other parts help you make moral and ethical decisions. Yes, lots of stuff going on up there.
The key to thriving is to help all of these parts work well together. It is similar to what happens in the body. We all have different organs that perform different jobs: our hearts, our stomachs, our lungs. All of these organs need to work together. The brain is no different. All these different parts of the brain need to work together in a very balanced way and also work with the other organs in the body.
Our brain pathways physically change throughout the course of our lives, not just in childhood, like previously assumed. They change even in the teen years and adulthood. And what molds our brains? Experiences. Even in old age, our experiences physically change the composition of our brains.
When we undergo an experience, our brain cells (neurons) become active and start firing away. When our cells fire together, they create new connections. If you have ever seen a human brain, you have seen those deep, curvy ridges throughout it. Think of this process as creating new paths on a trail. The more you walk on a specific spot, the more clear the path becomes. The same thing happens with the neuronal pathways in our brains. When we suppress and bury past experiences, specific pathways are created that can cause unhealthy behaviors, future tendencies and trauma that will affect us in the future.
This wiring and firing is a mind-blowing and powerful discovery to us humans. Why? It means that we are not held captive by the way our brain works right now. We have the power to rewire it so we can be healthier and happier.
Numbing The Pain
One way people do not process the pain of their past is by numbing the pain by avoiding the traumatic memories. They have an "out of sight, out of mind" approach to their pain and it gets them by for some time, until it doesn't anymore. This pain manifests its way into the life, their relationships and their career. It is often the core of their negativity and pessimism toward others and their low self-esteem and confidence.
Often the reason we are driven to numb what we’re feeling is because we believe that the emotion we’re feeling isn’t “okay” or allowed. We think we’re not allowed to be angry, sad or frustrated. We only think we are allowed to be strong, so that means no crying. I'm here to tell you that you ARE allowed to feel your feelings, get angry, get sad and get frustrated. Processing these emotions and those traumatic memories will be how you finally heal once and for all.
Utilize The Power of the Mind
Feeling your feelings takes a lot of brain power. Your mind is a powerful, powerful entity and can take you exactly where you want to go and do not want to go. Your self-talk and inner dialogue are very, very important to your healing. How are you are you talking to yourself? Are you rude, demeaning and angry? Or are you graceful, kind and compassionate? This all really MATTERS.
If you are not completely convinced of the sheer power of your thoughts, take a look at some of these shocking examples of the power of the mind that science cannot yet fully explain—from the mysterious, like telekinesis, to the scientifically verified, such as the ability to actively control otherwise autonomic body functions through meditation. These examples may just change your mind for good.
Meditation In Monks
Filmed during a 1980s study, a group of Tibetan monks who practiced a type of yoga technique called g Tum-mo performed famous feats through meditation. These monks were able to dry wet sheets in frigid temperatures with only their body heat. The monks entered a deep meditative state while other monks draped sheets that had been soaked in cold water over their shoulders. Instead of causing the monks to shiver, the wet sheets began to steam. It only took an hour for the sheets to dry, then the dry sheets were removed and replaced with more cold, wet wrappings; this was then repeated a third time to complete the demonstration.
Subjected to temperatures and conditions that might literally kill other people, these practitioners of g Tum-mo never even shivered. The monks, who lived near the Himalayan Mountains, were also able to elevate the temperature of their toes and fingers by almost 20 degrees and were filmed spending a winter night outdoors at 15,000 feet wearing only shawls. Even when the temperature dropped to zero, no evidence was seen of shivering, and none of the monks huddled together.
Now, while I wouldn’t recommend trying any of that, I insert the testimony in these pages to show you that if monks can use nothing but their minds to completely modify their body temperature, then it is possible for us to harness that power as well and use it to change our personal health.
The Power of the Placebo Effect
One of the clearest cases that demonstrates the influence the mind has on health is the placebo effect, which occurs when the mind believes health will improve or deteriorate because of a perceived (often medical) intervention. The person’s mind believes their health will improve, and so it does, even if the intervention was technically non-existent. But more often than not, the person’s health really does improve. The person really does feel better. The pain is really gone.
A classic illustrative example of the placebo effect at work involved a terminal cancer patient and a worthless drug called Krebiozen. A man whom his doctors referred to as “Mr. Wright” was dying from cancer of the lymph nodes. Orange-sized tumors had invaded his neck, groin, chest and abdomen, and his doctors had exhausted all available treatments. Nevertheless, Mr. Wright was confident that a new anticancer drug called Krebiozen would cure him, according to a 1957 report by psychologist Bruno Klopfer of the University of California, Los Angeles, entitled “Psychological Variables in Human Cancer.”
Mr. Wright was bedridden and fighting for each breath when he received his first injection. But three days later he was cheerfully ambling around the unit, joking with the nurses. Mr. Wright’s tumors had shrunk by half, and after 10 more days of treatment, he was discharged from the hospital. And yet the other patients in the hospital who had received Krebiozen showed no improvement.
Over the next two months, however, Mr. Wright became troubled by press reports questioning the efficacy of Krebiozen and suffered a relapse. His doctors decided to lie to him: an improved, doubly effective version of the drug was due to arrive the next day, they told him. Mr. Wright was ecstatic. The doctors then gave him an injection that contained not one molecule of the drug—and he improved even more than he had the last time. Soon he walked out of the hospital symptom-free. He remained healthy until two months later, when, after reading reports that exposed Krebiozen as worthless, he died within days.
As Mr. Wright’s experience illustrates, the mind is incredibly powerful at healing the body. It is us who set the boundaries on our mind’s possibilities. When we get to the root of our emotions, beliefs and experiences and start growing and changing them, the effect they have on us will then change from a negative one to a positive one. If negativity and stress can breed illness, what do you think positivity and calm will breed? As Mr. Wright’s case demonstrates, it can breed health and wellness if you believe that it will.
How To Process Trauma Effectively
Giving yourself permission to feel allows you to have power over your emotions related to your past—you control your emotions instead of allowing your emotions (and your past) to control you, and in the process, you create the beautiful space to heal.
The healing process will bring up lots of different feelings and emotions; many will be uncomfortable. When these uncomfortable emotions come up, allow them to surface without becoming attached to them; notice them for what they are and know that there is a natural ebb and flow to them. Allow yourself to witness your emotions as a bystander, without judgment or reaction. This will allow you to respond objectively. Feelings and thoughts aren’t forever. They come and go—if you let them. It’s entirely up to you. You hold the power within your mind.
How To Face The Pain (It’s Not as Brutal as You Think)
Pain exists for a reason and serves a higher purpose. Instead of ignoring it, we can choose to make the shift to respect it and address it. When we push pain deeper into our subconscious, burying it alive, we will always live in fear that it may erupt at any time. Now is the time to ask yourself the important question, “Why am I experiencing this pain?” Once you have found those emotional knots, you need to approach them with honesty, openness and willingness to untie them. You have three choices:
Avoid the pain
Battle the pain ferociously
Lean into the pain
Let’s explore these choices in detail:
Choice One: Leaning Away From The Pain
You may have guessed by now that this is the most popular option. We have all done this millions of times. We are faced with an emotion or experience we do not like, and we choose to stuff it down deep into some crevasses in our brains with no intention of ever finding it again. You tell yourself that you just want the pain to leave you alone. Instead of allowing divine healing, many people grasp the next best thing: self-medicating. Drugs, alcohol, gambling, binge eating. These all create a temporary (and unhealthy) outlet to life’s realities. These can then lead to reliance on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications. These are all feeble attempts to self-regulate and fill a gap of separation from ourselves (and our Higher Power). Well hey, that pain? It’s back. It’s here now, and it will continue to fester until you demand more out of yourself and your life. Whether that is more success, more happiness, more peace, more patience, more love, more direction. Whatever that more is, own it. Take ownership of what you want and feel justified in that desire.
Choice Two: Battling The Pain Ferociously
You may be reading these words and feeling seriously overwhelmed at the healing you know needs to happen. This may make you want to jerk the wheel and take extreme measures. Maybe those measures are exercising yourself to the bone every day or fasting for a week or going to four yoga sessions in one day. You may be thinking that the battle has begun and you need to change, change, CHANGE and you need to do it now, now, NOW. But I would like you to just take a step back and breathe for a moment here. You have to practice love and grace with this process. Healing happens on an energetic level. It is not an overnight change. Don’t fight yourself. Just feel and experience healing with curiosity and an open, loving heart.
Choice Three: Gently Leaning Into The Pain
This choice removes the “battle” in battling with your pain. This choice takes more love, more deep breathing and, surprisingly, more courage. Leaning into the pain is a tough concept to grasp for some people. We are taught that life is a battle that we either win or lose. This journey is different; there is no win or lose. There is an in-between while doing this inner work. Just focus on learning, exploring and pioneering a new way of living that feels really good to you.
Which option will you choose? It's entirely up to you. You CAN physically re-wire your brain and regain full emotional, physical and spiritual health again.
This article is an excerpt taken out of my personal growth book, Feel It. Heal It. Let It Go: Taking Power Back From Your Pain. To read more about this topic, check out my book on Amazon or where all books are sold.
Love + Light,