How PTSD Can Affect the Body

PTSD shows up in somatic pain

PTSD shows up in somatic pain

It was a perfect spring morning in Colorado. After what seemed like a long cold winter of snow and cold, the warm weather finally had come to the Rocky Mountain area. Flowers were starting to bloom, birds were chirping and the grass and trees were coming to life with a beautiful green. These are my favorite mornings to be out getting in some cardio under the Colorado blue sky. And then, as I was taking in this perfect day, suddenly I heard a horrific sound that sent shivers down my spine and I knew immediately that something had gone horribly wrong as the sound of metal crashing and tires squealing permeated my senses.

As I urgently approached, I could see two cars had collided and the angry twisted metal that is left when speed is part of the equation. The driver of the big red Suburban remained behind the wheel of her car and was visibly shaken, unable to speak, or move, frozen or in shock, although there were no obvious signs of an injury. The other driver of the little blue Honda was out of her car but seemed to be having an anxiety attack as she stated, “Help me, I feel like I am going to pass out”. A third person was screaming and yelling at the driver stuck in the Suburban while a fourth person appeared to be running away from the accident.

As a therapist for PTSD and trauma, I recognized the fight or flight response that was taking place- freeze-fight-run for each person. We know that when a person perceives a threat or is in a crisis, they go into survival mode. The preprogrammed automatic responses that are hardwired in the brain from the earliest years of life, take over. Without deliberation, without a thought, without conscious decision, fight or flight ensues. This is the primal brain taking over. The purpose is to survive.  

The autonomic nervous system has two polls: Sympathetic and Parasympathetic. When the Sympathetic nervous system is activated, heart rate and blood pressure go up, breathing becomes faster, increasing blood flow to the body for movement, adrenaline is released and the body is ready for action when a person perceives a threat or crisis. The single most important focus is survival. All energy goes to fight or flight for survival.

Meanwhile the other poll, parasympathetic system, which is used for healing and digestion, is slowed. This allows energy to go to the most important purpose at the moment- fight or flight. So this is a good thing, right? Not so fast.

So let’s say I have experienced PTSD and I know that I am hypervigilant because of an event I have experienced. I am on high alert most of the time, guarded, cautious and never dropping my guard. In terms of Sympathetic and Parasympathetic systems, think what that is doing to my body. Energy constantly focused on fight or flight, adrenaline surging through my veins for an unexpected emergency. Healing and digestion has NO Priority. Hard on the body. Lots of somatic problems can show up. Many times we do not recognize that they may be related to PTSD.

Here are a few:

Thyroid disease                        Heart disease

Cancer                                       Fibromyalgia

Irritable bowel syndrome          Depression

Anxiety                                      Arthritis

Diabetes                                   Musculoskeletal disease          

Endometriosis                           ulcers


Think about a guy sitting in his car in his driveway with the engine running. He has one foot on the accelerator- hard- and one foot on the brake. And he’s just sitting there reading a book. You might walk up to him and say, “Hey, what are you doing?” That is really hard on the car!  

That’s what it’s like when I remain in hypervigilance, high alert, and ultra- aware long after a traumatic event is over. Guess what? Very hard on the body. It can’t be improving what’s going on now, at this moment in your life. It can only be depleting energy and my ability to be engaged in the present.

So when that disappears (hypervigilance, preoccupation with a past event) when your mind reboots-clears-updates.  The difference in your life is phenomenal. One difference would be the way your body is healing. The difference in the way you would be connecting and enjoying life and the present moment.

PTSD can have lasting effects on the body and on your life when you are unable to accomplish post traumatic growth. You remain stuck in a never ending cycle of vigilance. I want you to know that healing is possible. Post traumatic growth can happen. You can have your life back, so you can experience life in a calmer, more peaceful, joyful, happy way. I’m here to help. Give me a call.

Cathy Austin