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What effects does trauma have on our brains and bodies?

Trauma can impact our relationship to ourselves, to others, and to the world around us. When looking at lists of the possible impacts of trauma, we see that it can affect pretty much any part of our lives and that for everyone the experience will be different. 

Sometimes it is easier to tell that a response is connected to trauma. For example, after a specific event, a person may be anxious, have trouble sleeping, and constantly think of that event. Other times, especially when the trauma is ongoing or from our past, it can be harder or even impossible to separate out a “before” and “after” in terms of trauma responses. 

Our bodies and brains are constantly working to keep us safe. It is normal for traumatic situations to lead to changes in our bodies, brains, and relationships. Many of these responses are outside of our conscious control. 

These videos help illustrate some of the effects of trauma on the brain. 

Childhood Trauma and the Brain
Rebecca Campbell on Trauma
PTSD and the Brain

If this topic interests you, you could also check out these articles:

Trauma and the Brain
Experiencing Emotional Trauma Can Affect the Brain
Calming Trauma

Some people find that understanding the brain science behind trauma can help them have compassion for themselves or others. It can give us some ideas on healing and coping strategies. For example, intentional movement can release chemicals in our bodies that allow our brains to shift into less reactive states. Similarly, some grounding or breathing exercises can stimulate our brain chemicals to move from a responsive or reactive state, to a place where we can recognize that we are not currently in a place of danger.

You don’t need to know the neuroscience to understand that trauma can impact our whole lives and relationships. The different types of responses and impacts of trauma can be extensive. They also can look like a number of other things. For example, someone might experience a lot of physical pain. This could be how their body is processing trauma; it could be due to chronic illness or an injury; it could be related to a way that they are trying to cope with their trauma (for example someone might exercise a lot as a way to try to ease their anxiety and could experience pain from the exercise). In another instance, trauma can change the ways that we make decisions. This may be a result of injuries to our brains or from exhaustion. Someone may avoid making decisions out of fear. It could also be connected to changes in our brains or our thinking. Often what we see (the affects of trauma) are the results of many factors.

We know that trauma can have extensive affects on us, but why is it helpful to know more about what those are?

Understanding the impacts of trauma can help us feel less alone. It can also help “normalize” our experiences – meaning that instead of being upset with ourselves or others, we can recognize that what is happening is connected back to trauma. In fact, the changes may be part of how we are handling our bodies’ responses. For example, someone may drink more to numb themselves or to try to feel something. 

By understanding our own responses we may also be better equipped to choose healing tools. 

Check out our blog for more information on healing tools.

What aspects of our lives can be impacted by trauma? Let’s take a look at some of the changes we might experience.

Our Bodies

Trauma can make physical changes to our brains and bodies. There has been some research on the impacts of trauma on our genes – and the ways it can be carried through generations. People who experience trauma are at greater risk for a number of health concerns. We may also experience pain, stomach/digestion issues, headaches, sleep disturbances, and changes in our energy levels. These can show up soon after traumatic events or months and years later; they may also become longer-term health concerns. 

Learn more about Intergenerational Trauma: 

Intergenerational Trauma Video
Healing Generational Trauma in Black Communities
Awareness of Epigenetics and Inherited Trauma

Our thoughts and feelings

Some of the changes that we see in our thoughts and feelings can be directly traced to the ways that trauma impacts our brains. For example, a brain can get stuck in fight, flight, or freeze mode – sending out chemicals for us to react in a certain way, even when what’s happening to us doesn’t warrant that response. This can lead to rapid mood changes, heightened fear or anxiety, or numbness. 

Because a lot of trauma impacts our trust in ourselves, others, and the world around us, we often see changes in our thinking. This may look like thoughts of being worthless or blaming ourselves for the violence. Many people feel unworthy of having good things in their lives.

Trauma can impact what we are able to focus on. For some people, this means intense, repetitive thoughts of the trauma. For others, it might mean disruptions in memory – about the trauma itself, or any other aspect of memory. Many people also find that what’s called their “executive functioning” is disrupted. This is the ability to plan and focus. So someone may find that they focus intensely on some details, and can’t focus on others. Other people find it’s really difficult to identify the steps needed to complete a task. 

Recognizing Coping Strategies

Through all these impacts, each person is processing their own unique reactions, coping strategies, and the responses of others to their experiences and behaviors. It can be a lot to navigate! Understanding what is happening can be one part of healing and managing the impacts of trauma. When we are able to recognize that trauma is impacting our lives, we may be better able to seek the care we need – which could be from friends, healing practices, or professional services. 

Some of the impacts of trauma may be out of our control – they are ways that our bodies react or respond to situations that may take a lot of time to change. Some strategies for coping may feel like choices or be perceived as choices by others, but may actually be the only or best option that someone has access to. 

People often take many different actions to manage their feelings. Some of these may be conscious/knowing choices that we make (like, I know that if I put my hand in ice, it will distract me from my other pain). Other strategies we may use without being so conscious of why we’re doing it (for example, a person starts disassociating more because it helps them relax, but they aren’t necessarily thinking “I will zone out in order to relax”). Some other ways that people cope:

  • Drinking or using drugs in order to change what we feel
  • Ignoring feelings or disassociating
  • Hiding or staying inside
  • Yelling, getting defensive, or physically protecting ourselves whether or not there is a threat.
  • Having outbursts or expressing big feelings (screaming or crying, for example)
  • Jumping or screaming – especially as a response to fear
  • Intensely focusing on details – particularly things that feel related to safety 

People may also change their habits, consciously or not, due to pain or other physical reactions they are having. These can be difficult to differentiate from the acute impacts of trauma on the body and might look like:

  • Eating a lot, not eating enough, or changing what you eat dramatically
  • Experiencing physical or chronic pain
  • Sleeping a lot, not sleeping enough. Trouble falling or staying asleep.
  • Having brain fog or challenges with attention 


It is impossible to list all of the impacts of trauma. And it’s critical to note that the impacts described could all be symptoms of many other things. Many people report experiencing misdiagnosis related to trauma – either having symptoms blamed on trauma, overlooking other causes, or receiving diagnoses and labels that ignored their experiences of trauma. 

Further, traumatic brain injuries can cause many of the symptoms listed above; so people who have experienced violence may be dealing with both the physical and psychological impacts. 

All of this may make understanding trauma and its impact on our lives difficult or even overwhelming. It is okay for there to be unanswered questions and for us to dwell in uncertainty. In future articles in this series, we will look at what “trauma-informed care” means and explore some of the healing practices that exist. In the meantime, if you are seeking support check out these resources (blog posts on healing, finding a therapist, and list of crisis lines).

In the next part of this series, we’ll look at the impacts of trauma on relationships.