8 ways long-term trauma can affect someone physically

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:


1. Fibromyalgia

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.

6. Tinnitus

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.

7. Migraines

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.


8 ways you might feel when you’ve been sectioned under the Mental Health Act

Being detained under the Mental Health Act and confined to a psychiatric ward is something that is supposed to be done in your best interests, but it most likely won’t feel like that at the time.

Of course, everyone will feel differently, but here are 8 ways you might feel.


1. Powerless

Being free to mostly do as we choose is vital for us as human beings in today’s society. Being told that you cannot leave somewhere, or go out for a walk to stretch your legs, or being forced to do things and go places you do not want to, can have a profound and lasting effect on how you feel about yourself and about the world.

2. Angry

One of the most natural emotions to feel when you are no longer in control of what is happening to you is anger. You might feel angry with the professionals who assessed you, because you don’t agree with their decision. You might feel angry with your family if you feel that this has happened because of them. You might be angry because you feel you are not being listened to, or because you feel the staff are against you.

There are many things you might feel angry about, and often other emotions, such as fear, can feel like anger.

Sometimes anger can lead to you lashing out and becoming aggressive, which is fairly understandable if you are stuck in such a confined and powerless situation. Aggression might not necessarily be interpreted in this way, unfortunately, and may lead to further restrictive interventions or negative staff attitudes towards you, making you more angry and creating a cycle.

3. Afraid

You may not even be sure what is happening, know where you are, or know who these people are who are stopping you from doing what you want to do. You might be scared of the other patients, or the staff, or what you think is going on.

The way you feel and act when you are afraid can often feel and look the same as anger.

4. Ashamed

No one should have to feel ashamed if their health has led to them needing urgent mental health treatment or support, but stigma in society around serious mental health problems continues, so it is not surprising if you do feel this way.

Your feelings might be about how you perceive yourself, and also about what other people might think about you.

5. Alone

You may only be able to see or speak to your loved ones at certain times or for short periods. You might not get along with any of the other patients, or be interested in them, so you spend a lot of time on your own.

If you are moved to a hospital out of the area, it may be impossible for you to have anyone visit you, and you may feel very far from anything and anyone familiar.

You might not even want anyone to visit or call if you are feeling ashamed, or if you are angry with them seemingly playing a part in your current situation.

You can still feel lonely, even if you have purposely decided that you don’t want to see or speak to anyone.

6. Irritated

When you are feeling irritable, you can get annoyed or stressed out at things very easily. This can happen for many reasons, such as in response to outside stress, or because you feel bored and fed up.

Psychiatric wards are often not calm places. They can be noisy and uncomfortable, and also boring if there are few activities, or if you don’t feel like joining in.

Other patients can be noisy or disruptive because they aren’t very well. Being stuck in a fairly small area, with people you would not normally choose to be with, can lead to you feeling irritable and agitated.

7. Worried

You may have children, a partner, or pets, and be worried about how you being away from them is affecting them. You might be worried about how being sectioned will affect your life in terms of your job or your reputation.

8. Trapped

If you are an informal patient on a mental health patient, you will often be allowed to come and go as you please throughout the day.

As a patient on a section, however, you cannot go out for leave unless it is legally agreed to and signed off by a psychiatrist. This is called section 17 leave. If the psychiatrist is not in over the weekend to do it, or if they decide you won’t be allowed it yet, then you cannot leave the unit.

This means spending all your time in just a few spaces – a bedroom, hallway, lounge area, dining room, a small yard, maybe a quiet room, and occasionally activity rooms – sometimes for months on end.

Feeling trapped can make you feel irritable, stressed, and angry, and more likely to feel aggressive towards others.

It can also have lasting effects on you mentally because of the stress it can cause.


These feelings are all very natural responses to the experience of being detained under a section of the Mental Health Act.

Although I have set them out individually here, these emotions do not happen separately, but are all entwined with each other. Feeling one will often make you also feel many of the others.

You may not even be able to tell which of them you are feeling because they all get so easily tangled and jumbled up together.

Your stress levels can affect the way you act and how you come across, which in turn might affect the way others respond to you and the care that you receive.

All of this can lead to an extremely stressful experience, the effects of which you might carry with you sometime into the future.

It is quite normal to feel any of these emotions, or any others, when you are in this situation.


If you are currently on a section on a mental health ward of any kind, it is highly likely that you are legally entitled to an advocate.

This is someone impartial, who is not part of the staff who are caring you, that will listen to you and support you to be able to express your views, and who will help you stand up for your rights.

If you would like to speak to an advocate, let a member of staff on your ward know. They will be able to organise that for you.

Alternatively, you can find one and contact them directly by searching online.


Here are some great UK charities with resources to get you started:

Mind

Rethink

Voiceability

POhWER


You might also like to read 10 ways you might feel LONG AFTER being sectioned under the Mental Health Act, which looks at how the experience of being sectioned can still affect you some time afterwards.