Image shows an ethereal feminine person reaching toward their own reflection with a tear in their eye.

How Trauma Affects Your Body — And How Your Body Protects You

Created on 26/09/2022
Updated on 19/10/2022
“I’m on an anti-resilience kick right now,” says Dr. Janelle S. Peifer, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Richmond. It is, at first glance, a surprising statement. The founder of The Center for Inclusive Therapy and Wellness, Peifer supports clients, especially women of color, as they process the ongoing traumas of patriarchy, heterosexism, capitalism, and white supremacy. I’ve asked Peifer about a contradiction in U.S. culture’s approach to healing: How can survivors of trauma honor and even feel gratitude for our own survival instincts, while acknowledging healing is often a complicated journey? Peifer explains that Black women and other women of color, first gen women, and economically marginalized women are particularly likely to experience trauma. But they are also pressured to demonstrate outward markers of strength no matter what their internal experience: to keep showing up smiling at work, as parents and partners, and in their communities. To conventional researchers, that outward strength is a sign of successful coping. But these researchers are missing a key point: “They’re neglecting to look at the internal experience of the individual,” Peifer says. “How do you feel? Just because you are doing all of the things, where’s joy? Where’s peace for you, relaxation, the ability to let go?” In contrast, Peifer is one of many voices questioning dominant U.S. culture’s insistence that marginalized people be inspirational role models of resilience. Instead, she and other therapists and activists invoke our collective right not just to endure, but to heal, to feel joy, and to rest.
When we experience trauma, society presents us with a false binary: We can either 'indulge' in that pain or 'get over it.'
“Getting over it” is often code for ignoring injustice. But the wisdom of our bodies, and of the people — largely women and femmes of color — deeply engaged in healing work offer us a different framework. They don’t pressure survivors of trauma to ignore or simply push past trauma. Instead, they invite us to engage in an ongoing relationship with the way trauma lives in our bodies, to “engage with it,” says Peifer, and find ways “to make meaning and create.”

Trauma is Political

Trauma is the result of any experience in which the body registers a threat to our existence. That can be a literal near-death experience, like a car crash. It can also be any experience where the body registers a threat to selfhood, autonomy, or to our ability to access the material and community support we need to survive. For example, experiencing eviction, being repeatedly misgendered, or being in an emotionally abusive relationship. Conventional narratives of trauma describe it as a singular event to triumphantly overcome. But for most marginalized people, trauma is more complicated. It can be passed down, our ancestors’ trauma affecting the very expression of our DNA. Peifer says that’s the case for descendents of Holocaust survivors and African people whom Europeans enslaved. Trauma is interwoven in the mundane brutalities of our society, from the daily indignity of saddling children with school-lunch debt to privileged folks’ stigmatizing refusal to acknowledge unhoused people on the street. And trauma can result from one-time events that reflect ongoing patriarchal inequalities, such as a sexual assault. Peifer specializes in working with clients with complex PTSD. CTPSD often results from experiences of ongoing, pervasive trauma — for example, incarceration or living in abusive households as a child. Marginalized people, including LGBTQ people and people of color in the United States, may be especially likely to experience CPTSD due to lifetimes of discrimination. Discrimination forces marginalized people into a state of hypervigilance. “You have become so used to having to be aware of your race in spaces, or your gender in spaces, and wondering if you’re going to be discriminated against or hurt that it becomes your baseline normative,” says Peifer. “But on some level our body also knows that that’s not right – that you shouldn’t have to have that hypervigilance.” This tug of war between our inherent sense of dignity and our need to navigate inequality is deeply distressing — and political.

Trauma Harms the Body

When something harms or alarms us, our bodies release a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. Our heart rate and breathing speed up, and our muscles tense. We naturally enter a series of defensive responses that some psychologists call fight, flight, fawn, or freeze. These trauma responses are adaptive, meaning they evolved as our bodies’ attempts to keep us safe. A higher heart rate circulates oxygen to our muscles, readying our ancient ancestors to, say, fight off a carnivorous animal. Faster breathing prepared them to flee from, for example, an oncoming natural disaster. Freezing, like a deer in the headlights, may have encouraged a threatening person or animal to ignore them. And fawning – trying to seem cute and inoffensive — may have pacified a potential aggressor. Our bodies respond with fight, flight, freeze, or fawn reactions when faced with trauma in the modern world. For example, many sexual violence survivors report freezing during assaults. And I, like many intimate partner violence survivors, am achingly familiar with fawning to try to appease someone who is harming me. Yet in the contemporary United States, marginalized people – particularly people who are Black, Indigenous, transgender, and living in poverty – are criminalized for their bodies’ normal and understandable self-protection. For example, up to 94% of incarcerated women in some prisons have experienced sexual and domestic violence victimization, and many women and femmes are incarcerated for fighting back against their abusers. Of course, fighting back is a totally understandable response to an attack.
While our trauma responses protect us in the moment, ongoing trauma harms the body.
“It changes the way that your body reacts and feels,” says Peifer. It can leave us in a perpetual state of hypervigilance, meaning we may perceive innocuous sounds or movements as threats. It can cause us to dissociate, or disconnect from our bodies and feelings, making it more difficult to experience intimate relationships. Trauma from sexual and intimate partner violence can cause survivors to dissociate during sex. Research has found that folks who have experienced trauma in early childhood are at higher risk of heart disease, cancer, suicide, and more. The U.S. medical system has historically blamed these diseases on personal choices, say in diet. Yet societal factors play a huge role. Researchers have found that ongoing and historical trauma is likely one of the reasons Indigneous Americans have a high rate of type two diabetes. Similarly, gay men, bisexual women, and trans folks of all genders and orientations are more likely to experience high blood pressure, probably related to chronic stress. If you’ve experienced trauma, it can understandably feel daunting to hear about these negative effects. It doesn’t make you “weak” to mourn the way trauma has harmed your body and community. Actually, that’s a sign that you’re working through something important.

Healing is a Process

It can be hard to spot the effects of trauma, since violence and inequality are the sea we swim in. “Especially depending on how early it happened and how ongoing it was, it becomes very hard to get to the idea of ‘Who am I?’” says Peifer about complex trauma. “What would have been my true self if I lived in a space of expanse and liberation? How would I have expressed? How can I even know that?” These are questions we can direct toward all of society. What would – and, I truly believe, will – our world look like when all people have access to the support they need to thrive? These are also individual questions. How can we identify the parts of us created through trauma? How can we let go of the patterns that no longer serve us, while holding gratitude for our bodies’ attempts to protect us? “Oftentimes the first step is to be able to come into awareness of self, and to value the awareness of self,” says Peifer. “Which for many women of color and many marginalized people, it often feels downright decadent.” Dissociation can show up in unexpected ways. For example, Peifer says many people with complex PTSD — especially, says Peifer, her women clients of color — may dissociate through high achievement in the workplace. Peifer invites her clients to practice mindfully experiencing their bodies. “Do you notice that tightness in your jaw?” Peifer asks. “That your breathing is shallow, that your stomach feels sick? What is your mind expressing through your body in terms of how tightly coiled you are?” Once her client is more in touch with those physical effects, Peifer invites them to begin engaging with the emotional causes. For people who’ve been taught that strength means continuing without care or complaint, sitting with our feelings can feel self-indulgent. But this process allows us to gain vital insight. “Actually, the feeling of things isn’t going to keep you stuck,” says Peifer. “The feeling of it is going to move you forward.”

We Don’t Have to Forget to Grow

There’s a lot of discussion in pop psychology about post-traumatic growth. Peifer defines this as the ability to move forward through trauma while making sense of it in a meaningful way. Often, conversations about posttraumatic growth reiterate the conventional belief that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” and “everything happens for a reason.” Those explanations ignore the inequalities that cause harm — and ignore that many marginalized people do not survive trauma. Relationship abuse, incarceration, and transphobic discrimination are not placed by fate into people’s lives as growth experiences. They are the brutal results of our society’s decision to abuse and neglect the poor and marginalized. Contrary to popular belief, folks who experience more posttraumatic growth tend to have more PTSD symptoms. “They still have instances where the trauma is present with them in a way that doesn’t necessarily fit into our models of what healing looks like,” says Peifer. This seeming contradiction reveals the crux of posttraumatic growth. True growth is being able to reflect on trauma and say, “Yes, it’s still with me because it’s significant, it’s meaningful, I’m not suppressing it,” says Peifer. “You’re self-authoring a relationship with your trauma in a way that feels meaningful and liberating.” Partly as a result of coping with trauma, people from marginalized communities tend to have greater empathy for others, according to a study by Peifer and her colleague Gita Taasoobshirazi. Similarly, many survivors of abuse – including me – feel, as a result of hypervigilance, a profoundly honed ability to sense others’ emotional energy. This empathy is an important tool to advocate for a radically different and better world. Healing requires community and material support. All the self-help articles in the world cannot by themselves build free housing, open prison gates, or give all people free healthcare. That’s why healing is collective as well as individual; it takes place in the streets as much as in the therapist’s office. Yet no matter where we are in our journeys, or what resources we have, everyone can and deserves to access self-love and kindness. Perhaps healing resides in that contradiction – that process of living with experiences that are unbearable, in a world that is unbearable, yet still affirming community, meaning, and joy.

Leave a comment