The Connection Between Emotional Trauma and Pain

by | Aug 10, 2022 | Holistic Wellness, Somatics

We all know that physical injuries can cause painful symptoms. However, did you ever think that emotional traumas could be the reason why people feel so much pain? An inability to ‘regulate’ our emotions and feelings can lead to problems that affect us physically.

Emotions are generally spontaneous, intense, short-lived, and seem to come out of the blue. Their job is to keep us alert and alive. When we experience an ongoing barrage of emotions such as fear, anger, or sadness, we don’t have the ability or success to calm ourselves and bring us back to homeostasis or an inner balance. The anxiousness we feel, over time, will usually manifest as physical sensations such as tension headaches, tight muscles, shallow breathing, and stomach aches.

Sometimes, an individual who experiences chronic pain and has difficulty coping or managing strong and ongoing emotional states will replay a specific scenario in their mind. Consequently, the mind becomes stuck in a loop of repetitive feelings and thinking. As a result, the body tries to withdraw and starts to shut down, causing the person to become depressed. Acute pain, emotional overwhelm, and racing thoughts can exceed our self-regulating capacity. It is vital that you get help if you’re suffering from chronic pain, not just because it can make your life miserable, but it can have debilitating effects on your physical health and mental well-being. 

What Is Emotional Trauma?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), trauma is “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster.” These types of events include physical abuse, sexual assault, natural disasters, accidents, violent crimes, war, and other life-changing events. When these kinds of events happen to us, they can leave lasting effects on our lives. They may cause us to feel sad, angry, or afraid for a long time after the event happens.

Trauma does not reside in the past event but lives in the present, as contracted body tissues trapping inflammatory chemicals. This is how the nervous system initially attempted to protect and restore balance.

In a world that does not stop for trauma, without realizing what we are doing, we change how we move, accommodating the best we can. These protective responses, seeming dormant for months or even years, begin to resurface as we attempt to unravel and resolve physically and emotionally the initial traumatic event or events. When these experiences occur, the body may react by releasing stress hormones. This makes people more likely to become sick and weak. 

How Does Emotional Trauma Cause Physical Pain

Emotions are powerful states of being. Unchecked, they can hurt you in many ways — relationally, mentally, and even physically. When emotionally charged events happen, the nervous system releases massive amounts of chemicals called stress hormones and neurotransmitters. Stress hormones can lead to many physical symptoms, including headaches, stomach aches, backaches, shortness of breath, and muscle cramping.

Neurotransmitters are responsible for transmitting information between your brain cells and are the link to sending commands to your organs and muscular system. For example, if you get hit by a car, you produce massive amounts of adrenaline and norepinephrine. Your nervous system wants to protect and preserve your body. These chemicals activate the muscular system allowing you to move away from the danger. This fight-or-flight response happens when you are under a real threat or a perceived threat. The brain responds the same way. So, even thinking thoughts that relive or retell the event activates the nervous system. 

If you continue feeling anxious after the event, it is a sign that you cannot consciously regulate your emotions. You need help! If you don’t do this, your body will continue to produce additional stress hormones, such as cortisol. This ongoing release of chemicals unbalances the scales of cellular equilibrium. It leads to many health issues, including chronic fatigue, pain, anxiety, depression, and muscle control changes. Unchecked or dysregulated emotions cause shifts in our nervous system, leading to chronic pain and eventually impacting how our brain works. 

The trick is recognizing the early signals the nervous system sends out in your body: stress in the nervous system is a call to action. What action needs to be taken that you are consciously or unconsciously holding back on, what needs to be completed that would allow you to let go, and what words need to be said that can’t be spoken? 

The Role of the Nervous System in Emotional Trauma and Pain

An individual’s subjective experience determines whether an event is or is not traumatic. With trauma, one’s sense of safety is shattered, overwhelming a person’s ability to cope. Bound in the nervous system as symptoms of fear, helplessness, dissociation, confusion, or other disruptive feelings, trauma can have a long-lasting negative effect on a person’s attitudes, behavior, and other aspects of functioning.

What would happen if you started to think differently about chronic emotional states, anxiety, and stress? The nervous system plays a critical role when it comes to emotions, and it is especially true for traumatic events. When you experience an event like a natural disaster, a car accident, or a terrorist attack, your initial emotional state is a natural response evoked by the nervous system. 

However, over time, the inability to regulate the initial emotional state leads to harm and escalates into chronic anxiety. Three cycles of focused breathing can allow you to start to transform fear and anxiety. Listening to your body’s cues of shallow breathing, tightness in the face, and a feeling of dread are the early signals that stress is transitioning to anxiety. Pay attention and review the events leading to ‘stressful’ episodes.’ Notice what you and those around you are doing and what you are noticing in your body. Is there an action you must take, but you are simultaneously putting on your brakes and pushing the gas pedal?

Final Thoughts

Traumatic events cause physical and mental health issues. Diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic anxiety, and depression, the pain associated with trauma is felt physically. Trauma does not reside in the past event but lives in the present, as contracted body tissues and trapped inflammatory chemicals. This is how the nervous system initially attempted to protect and restore balance. It was a good response at the time but has outlived its usefulness. 

Without realizing what we are doing, we change how we move and accommodate the best we can in a world that does not stop for trauma. These protective responses, seeming dormant for months or even years, begin to resurface as we attempt to unravel and resolve physically and emotionally the initial traumatic event or events.

People may experience headaches, stomachaches, and insomnia. They may feel numb, restless, anxious, and have a mind with a million repetitive thoughts. Their joints and muscles might ache and ‘hurt all over.’

So, what does all this mean? Chronic pain’s most significant impact on our brains is how it affects our mood. The mind and brain want to feel safe in unpredictable situations. Both are looking for a choice. When we intentionally engage our mind, such as paying attention, it equips us with a skill set that shapes neural patterns and functioning. Over time, this changes how the nervous system functions, even in a resting state. This ‘engagement’ is the ‘influence’ we have that can make changes in our bodies. This influence allows us to ‘feel’ like we are in control of our experience of chronic and unrelenting pain. 

It means we can be more informed and choose how to respond to traumatic events. If you ignore them, they can cause severe problems in the long term. As we consciously integrate and learn how to release the contracted tissues, the physical and emotional threat, pain, and fear of loss encapsulated by the traumatic event can no longer keep us in a deregulated state. 

Somatic education can help you pinpoint where you store your emotions and help you alleviate the underlying pain caused by trauma. Somatic-based interventions such as the Feldenkrais Method and Fascial Counterstrain provide a supportive environment that allows the nervous system to sense safety, release the internal protective reflex, and allow a natural return to homeostasis or balance. This type of contact is a co-regulatory method, meaning that someone else is influencing or assisting in regulating. This co-regulation helps one navigate back to self-regulation, putting you into the driver’s seat of your own life. 

Contact my office at 812-344-4119 to learn more about somatic-based interventions, instructional classes, and physical therapy sessions.