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By Brooke Stoltzfus, LSW

As humans, we have an interesting make-up that is unique only to us. Our body and our soul are tied together; one cannot be affected without the other enduring at least some of the effects. This means that what will affect our psyche affects our physical body, and these effects often present themselves in physical form. 

Let’s define a couple terms to better understand what’s going on between our body and soul. Dr. Gabor Maté, a renowned author in the mental health field, has done extensive research about trauma, the impact it has on our physical health, and how it plays a role in addiction. Dr. Maté identifies trauma as the difference between a car accident and the concussion someone experiences because of the accident. Trauma is not the event itself (the car accident), rather it is the lasting injury inside you (the concussion).

Given this definition, Dr. Maté argues that the majority of the population has endured some kind of trauma on the “trauma spectrum”. This can be thought of as “little t trauma” meaning things that should have happened that didn’t, and “big T trauma” which are things that should not have happened that did. When we experience traumatic events, our brain sounds alarm bells in our heads telling us we’re in danger. This alarm system is wonderful for keeping us safe! However, when our brains are in a constant state of alarm, our bodies grow tired. 

Another helpful definition: defense mechanism, which is “an unconscious process, as denial, that protects an individual from unacceptable or painful ideas or impulses” (definition from Dictionary.com). As a defense mechanism, our brain can repress memories that feel dangerous to us. Many times this is an ineffective strategy, and, as a result, our body can experience the side effects in a physical sense. These physical side effects are important, because our bodies can often indicate to us how we’re feeling! We can even see this play out in more minor events. If nervous, we might experience shaky hands; if sad, we often cry; if excited, maybe we jump up and down or can’t stop smiling. Physical indicators of our emotions can be subtle or obvious whether or not we notice them!

Going back to our defense mechanism that isn’t always the most helpful – our brains try to stuff these painful memories down as a way to escape them, but they have to be dealt with in some capacity. When we don’t process these emotions attached to painful memories, our brain continues to function in a state of alarm. Imagine how exhausting that is! When our mental health is in decline, our physical health also almost always declines. More research is surfacing showing the impacts of childhood trauma on adult physical health. One of them performed by Greenfield and Marks in 2009 showed that participants who reported victimization in childhood, whether psychological or physical, experienced worse health than participants who did not. Those participants who reported victimization also had health that declined significantly more over a 10-year period in adulthood. When we’re talking about health decline, it often involves chronic illness, and interestingly, Dr. Maté has seen many patients in his work recover from a chronic illness after properly processing traumatic events in their past.

While our bodies are not perfect and still affected by earthly conditions, we can still use the tools God has given us to live a healthy life. This might look like acknowledging the physical signs of our poor mental health. Instead of having our past define us, how can we learn from it and use it to grow? Acknowledging and naming past hurt gives the control back to you. When we shy away from hurt and avoid painful experiences, we allow the pain to have dominion over us; we might even think it will become our identity if we acknowledge it! However, quite the opposite is true. When we understand our emotions surrounding hurt, we understand more deeply who God has made us to be. He created both our body and soul to glorify Him, tying our physical and mental health together because He desires us to be congruent creatures, existing in harmony with Him.  


We are Here to Help

Are you experiencing physical symptoms of trauma or are unsure how past trauma is affecting you today? We here at Lime Tree Counseling would like to help you work through past trauma and find new ways to cope. We offer therapy at our Lower Gwynedd offices as well as online counseling in Pennsylvania and online counseling in North Carolina. Our caring team specializes in trauma counseling, grief counseling and addiction counseling. Please give us a call today to schedule a phone consultation or initial session.