Experiencing trauma activates our stress response as our brains and bodies gear up to deal with threats. If you are exposed to severe stress and trauma that goes on over a long period of time, your body and brain will constantly be reacting to threats, and will actually begin to change in order to be able to cope. Over time, your systems become fatigued and physical effects begin to develop.
Examples of situations that can cause this include growing up in a stressful or abusive environment, being in an abusive relationship, having a long-term mental illness or disorder that means you get stuck cycles of trauma (such as ‘BPD’), sleeping rough and being homeless, working in the sex industry, and being detained for extended periods of time.
I would like to demonstrate this by sharing 8 ways I was personally impacted by experiences of long-term trauma.
All of these symptoms began to occur about a year after a serious mental health crisis, which was just one in a series of traumatic experiences I have had in my life.
Although I had begun to feel much better mentally a year or so after this, my body and physiology continued to remain in a stressed and traumatised state, and I developed the following:
I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia by a neurologist after I began to experience chronic pain all over my body and fatigue. I found it hard to move around or do daily chores without being in a lot of pain. I was exhausted all the time.
What is fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is a neurological condition that is mostly experienced through chronic pain all-over body pain and fatigue, but can also include cognitive (thinking) problems, sleeping issues, migraines, and other symptoms.
Although doctors aren’t completely sure why it happens, they have found that it often seems to be triggered by a physically or emotionally traumatic event. It involves changes with how the nervous system processes pain.
2. Dissociative ‘Attacks’
About a year after being diagnosed with fibromyalgia, I began to have dissociative episodes that would happen in response to certain environmental triggers.
Whilst I had experienced various forms of dissociation on and off throughout my life, it had always been more of a mental experience. These new episodes affected me physically.
My body would become rigid and I would be unable to walk properly, move, or speak, for hours at a time. It felt like my brain had completely disconnected from my body and got stuck, and I was waiting for it to come back again.
Even after they dissipated, I would feel exhausted for days afterwards.
What is dissociation?
Dissociation is when you experience a feeling of detachment and disconnection from either your own body or your surroundings. It is something most people experience in mild form, such as when you are daydreaming or going into ‘autopilot’ when driving a car. It becomes a problem when it is going on for longer periods, seriously affects your perception, and when it makes you feel distressed – all of which can affect your daily functioning.
3. Chest pain and rigidity
When I found something upsetting or emotional, I very quickly got really bad chest and upper back pain. It felt like I had a rock inside me trying to get out. The ache and the tension was so severe that I’d have to lie down and take painkillers. It could last for days.
It was a very specific pain and rigidity that only seemed to happen when I felt strong emotions, such as hurt, anger, and sadness. I would often get the rigidity in my face and jaw too, making it hard to smile, be expressive, or even talk properly, for days.
4. Cognitive Issues
My memory increasingly got worse, from me constantly forgetting where I’d put things or what I was doing, to causing stranger and more worrying things to happen. These included finding things done around the house that I didn’t remember doing, like hot cups of coffee sitting on the kitchen counter when it was only me in the house, or fresh washing hung up in my wardrobe!
I had difficulty concentrating, being able to understand and retain verbal information, and being able to respond to people verbally in a way that was timely or made sense. This could vary according to the circumstances, such as where I was and who I was with, and also on my levels of anxiety or emotion, but was one of the most difficult things I had to deal with.
I actually wrote about how cognitive issues like this can affect your ability to have a conversation. You can read it here: 5 reasons why having a conversation is so tricky when you have anxiety
These issues are one reason why I like writing so much – the written word is so much easier to manage!
5. Visual Snow Syndrome
This is an interesting one, and apparently also controversial because most of the professionals I see think it is a transient stress reaction or hallucinations.
I have had it diagnosed by an ophthalmologist and I’m pretty convinced it is not due to transient stress as the symptoms are there all of the time, from the moment I wake up until I go to sleep. They are even there when I have my eyes closed, and it has been that way for over a year and a half now.
It is a condition that not much is currently known about, and after further research I have found that most people have trouble getting it acknowledged by professionals.
Visual Snow Syndrome involves changes in your vision, such as seeing static everywhere, seeing traces when you look away from objects (palinopsia), light sensitivity, night blindness, and flashing colours and lights.
It is not a problem with the eye. The issue is thought to be how the brain is interpreting the information and the messages coming from the eye.
I call it ‘tinnitus of the eye’ because that is one of the best ways I’ve been able to explain it to people so they understand.
If you are interested in finding out more, read my other post: What it is like to live with Visual Snow Syndrome.
About the same time that the visual snow started, I also began to get tinnitus, which for me is a constant high-pitched ringing in my ears.
Tinnitus is quite common and is the perception of sound when there is no actual sound. The exact cause of tinnitus is not known, though it is believed that it has to do with changes in the signals going to the brain via the hearing nerves.
It can get overwhelming, especially if I am already feeling stressed, or if I am in a very quiet room. I tend to listen to white noise when I’m trying to get to sleep, or if I want to relax and read a book, so the noise doesn’t disturb me as much.
I have always been a headachy person, but along with the fibromyalgia I began to experience really bad ones, which then turned into migraines. I was getting them nearly every other day, though with medication I have managed to get them to a point where they only happen once or twice a month at most.
Migraines are thought to be a neurological condition, and I have found them to cause severe head pain, light and noise sensitivity, nausea, and issues with speaking and seeing properly.
8. Random physiological reactions
Although I have suffered from anxiety for over 20 years, it tended to be more about social situations, crowds, or feeling embarrassed and awkward in front of people.
These new ‘random’ anxiety attacks began to happen when there is no obvious trigger. I would be doing something that doesn’t normally make me feel anxious, like having a shower, or eating breakfast, and not thinking about anything bad at the time.
I got hit with waves of anxiety out of nowhere. I wouldn’t experience it as anxious thought, but in terms of my body and my physiology. My heart would thump, I’d feel like I wasn’t getting enough oxygen, and I’d have to take deeper breaths and sit down. I’d feel sick and afraid and find it hard to think properly. It usually lasted hours, sometimes days, so it wasn’t like a ‘simple’ panic attack.
These are 8 things I personally experienced, though I’m sure there are others I have not included that other people will experience too.
I’m very glad to say, that other than the fibromyalgia, visual snow and tinnitus, I no longer suffer with these issues on a daily basis. It is possible to over come physical issues that have been caused by trauma. I did it by looking after myself and my working with a psychologist to overcome the emotional traumas. When your mind is feeling better, your body begins to get better too.
Despite my mental health radically improving after my crisis, my body continued to suffer. I believe this is because I did not do any work on what had caused my trauma/s. Once I did start addressing this, with the help of a psychologist, I improved radically.
I think this shows how important it is that trauma is recognised, and that people be given the opportunity to work through it with professionals in a safe way, in addition to learning coping mechanisms and healthier ways of living.
I think going deeper into what had happened can often make the most lasting difference to someone’s quality of life.
I believe that most people with a serious mental health condition, especially those who experience repeated crises, and those who have been detained, will most likely have been affected by trauma, whether that was via an earlier stressor that brought them to services, or the result of repeated and long-term interactions with services.