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20 Unexpected Physical Symptoms of Trauma

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse, emotional abuse, domestic violence or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

When we think of trauma, we often think of the deep emotional scars it can leave. And while we should absolutely acknowledge and validate the ways it can affect someone’s mental health and well-being, we may not realize our bodies can carry trauma in a very physical way as well. 

Maybe your body seems to “shut down” when you try to talk about your upbringing. Maybe you have trouble touching and being touched by others because of sexual assault. Or maybe you have unexplained pain when you encounter a triggering situation that brings you right back to the traumatic event.

Our bodies and minds are very intimately linked, and experiencing any kind of trauma can leave physical “evidence.” To learn some of the ways trauma not only affects your mind — but also your body — we asked people in our mental health community to describe what physical symptoms they experience as a result of a traumatic experience in their lives.

Here’s what they shared with us:

1.Scratching myself until I’m raw. It happens when the flashbacks start and I can’t snap myself out if it.” — Ashleigh P.

2. “If anyone starts yelling, I end up uncontrollably crying. Even if the person isn’t yelling at me. Just if they’re yelling in a negative way in general. I usually have to leave before it turns into an anxiety attack.” — Jackie P.

3. I binge eat. It’s a coping mechanism. Food was manipulated for a while in my household and was often something that would be taken away if anything bad happened. Which was a lot. So whenever I’m stressed or having a breakdown, most of the time I binge eat. They can’t take food away from me now, but I’m scared they still will.” — Gabriela C.

4. “I stress sweat, especially if I’m surrounded by strangers. I even stress sweat in my sleep, which leaves the sheets drenched. It’s gross and I hate it.” — Morgan F.

5. “When stressed [from] overtime at work, diarrhea every Friday evening for several hours, then it goes away until the following Friday evening. Never at work — only when reaching home — regardless of what I ate that day.” — Lina A.

6. “When I’m very stressed I start scratching my head, often bloody, bite my fingers, my lips. I try to calm down by tapping on my sternum heavily with my fingertips. It really helps me relax, because I feel it through my bones, it hurts a little and lets me snap out of my scratching and biting.” — Saraya V.

7. Muscle armoring due to PTSD. I haven’t been able to relax my shoulders for 10 plus years. Not even when I was visiting a chiropractor and got massage once a week did it help. Most of my body is tensed all the time. I got support products for my neck/shoulder and hands/wrist that are supposed to reflect body heat back to the body. But my body is so tense I don’t get much if any relief. When I get memory triggers, I also get tension headaches that last for weeks. My current one is on the fifth week with no relief.” — Andrea G.

8. “Selective mutism. When my brain gets too overloaded, one of the first things to shut down is my ability to speak. It’s like my vocal chords have been tied in a knot, and all I can think about is making myself invisible.” — Ryan G.

9. “I knew there would be memory loss of the event, but I also developed short-term memory loss and I can’t remember much before the age of 10 now (trauma happened at age 21).” — Nova H.

10. “I’ll be walking around downtown or talking to friends or driving to work and all of a sudden, I start gagging really hard… I’ve even thrown up a few times from it. I wonder if it’s my body trying to purge toxic emotions/memories/trauma from itself…” — Fern A.

11. “Public places make me extremely anxious and I flinch or tense up whenever a man walks near me. So when I’m anxious I have this weird ‘tic’ where I just repeatedly breathe in quick and and shoulders jump like someone was going to hit me. It’s really embarrassing to me because when I’m with someone and this happens, they think I’m doing something weird.” — Allison S.

12. When I get too stressed for a long period of time, a few weeks or so, I have the most excruciating stomach pain. I usually end up being hospitalized. I was once in there for five days on an IV. My doctor said it is connected to my PTSD, so unfortunately there is no way to avoid it.” — Carmen A.

13. “I lost my appetite. Usually, it would happen right before or after a meal. I would feel sick and I couldn’t even imagine eating. Later, once the initial shock and hurt passed, I would binge hard.” — Kairei V.

14. “I get periods of sensory issues, they can last hours or months. By sensory issues, I mean it feels like every sense is far away or I’m trapped in a fog. Then in an instant, everything is super overwhelming! Clothes are irritating, everything becomes too loud, too bright. It switches between all or nothing, multiple times a day for however long it lasts.” — Maggie B.

15. “I get nasty migraines.” — Marissa P.

16. “Seizures. If I get too stressed out, I can have seizures. It’s similar to panic attacks, but look exactly like an epileptic seizure. I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD and conversion disorder. Avoiding and finding healthier ways to deal with my triggers is a huge step to my recovery.” — Bobbie S.

17. “Insomnia. When I feel unsafe, I can’t sleep. And every little noise makes me flinch. I’ll lay wide-eyed, motionless in one spot until it’s time to get up. Because moving makes me feel unsafe. Like it will give away my location to a potential threat. Even though I live alone, in a very safe place.” — Cyntia A.

18. “I get brain zaps sometimes because my subconscious mind is trying to dissociate, but I’m fighting it off with my conscious thoughts. It’s like there’s someone in my brain whacking my head with a frying pan so hard it makes my eyes rattle in my skull, which is not the greatest sensation while you’re walking down the street at night.” — KJ B.

19. “I repeat words a lot when I have flashbacks or anxiety spikes. Sometimes it’s just a normal word like ‘so, so so, so, so’ or ‘and, and, and, and’ or sometimes I repeat downgrading phrases like ‘I hate myself I hate myself…’ I never did that before the assault. I think it’s a form of coping by focusing on the one word or phrase. It’s also a negative tic when I say things to downgrade myself.” — Caroline B.

20. “Whenever someone shouts near me, or there is tension in a room or around me, I start to fall into a panic attack and my face starts twitching. My eyelid has an involuntary twitch, my left cheek and my left ear drum tend to twitch when I’m stressed like that. The odd things that happen are uncountable.” — Lauren M.

Getty Images photo via MaximFesenko

Originally published: February 21, 2018
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