Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
March 5, 2024 ·  8 min read

Can Trauma Really Be Physically ‘Stored’ In The Body? Here’s What The Experts Say

Trauma occurs when a person is overwhelmed by events or circumstances and responds with intense fear, horror, and helplessness, completely losing their ability to cope. According to some estimates, seventy percent of adults in the United States have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives [1].

Scientists know that there is a direct correlation between stress and trauma and physical health conditions like diabetes, COPD, heart disease, cancer, and high blood pressure. There is also evidence that stress can manifest itself physically in our bodies, but now more than ever scientists have reason to believe that trauma can be ‘stored’ in the body.

Not All Trauma Looks the Same

The word trauma often conjures up images in our heads of a physical attack, violence, or some other obviously traumatic event, but the reality is trauma can be present in our lives in much less obvious ways.

“It’s true that some experiences are most obviously traumatic, like rape or war, but things like dealing with a serious illness in yourself or a family member, the death of someone close, the breakup of a significant relationship, or even losing a job or leaving a community that’s very important to you can be traumatic,” explained James S. Gordon, MD [2].

Ellen Vora, MD and holistic psychiatrist, also explained the concept of micro-traumas, which are chronic, mildly traumatic things that accumulate over a number of years and can add up to a macro trauma.

When someone experiences trauma, whether it’s micro or macro, the physical and psychological effects can last far beyond the event if they’re not dealt with and resolved. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), is a perfect example of this- it is a mental illness that develops after a person experiences something highly traumatic and can last for the rest of their life if it is not addressed [3].

Related: You Can Get PTSD By Staying in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship

What Happens to the Body When You Experience Trauma?

Gordon explained that the primary response to a stressful or traumatic event is what’s called the “fight or flight” response.

“The heart beats faster, blood pressure goes up, big muscles get tense and ready to run or fight, digestion slows down,” he said [2].

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the other common response to a stressful situation is to freeze or go into what Gordon calls a detached state. Both responses, however, are mediated by the autonomic nervous system. 

When the traumatic event happens, the areas of the brain that are responsible for fear, anger, and emotion, become much more active, while the frontal cortex, which is responsible for self-awareness, thoughtful decision making, human connection, and compassion, become less active.

 Andrea Roberts, Ph.D., a research scientist at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who studies PTSD, says that a traumatic event doesn’t always have to have lasting psychological effects.

“A sort of healthy resolution of a traumatic event would be that you do experience that initial stress response and you are shaken up, but after about a month, the anxiety and recollections of the event diminish significantly or go away,” she says [2].

Not everyone has that healthy response. Some people, even when they’re not consciously thinking about the traumatic event, get stuck in that fight-or-flight state, as trauma can sometimes shock the autonomic nervous system into a state of hyperarousal and hypervigilance.

This has lead many to believe that unprocessed trauma can actually ‘get stuck’ in our bodies, which can manifest itself physically without us realizing the cause. This is especially likely to happen when the thought or memory of a traumatic event is suppressed (consciously buried or forgotten) or repressed (unconsciously buried or forgotten).

When Memories Remain Unspoken

Shaili Jain, M.D., a clinical associate professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine and author of The Unspeakable Mind, says that when these thoughts or memories remain unspoken of or unthought-of for too long, they can actually impede the brain’s natural processes of recovery from a traumatic event.

“They become stuck points that inhibit the mental reintegration that is needed for healing to occur,” she explained [2]. 

So can this actually cause physical changes in our bodies? Apparently, yes. 

Jain cites PTSD as an example, which can disrupt hormone secretion, neurochemistry, and immune system functioning. All of these physical systems contribute to disease if they are unhealthy.

“Chromosomal studies have shown that PTSD patients have shorter telomeres—the segments on the ends of chromosomes that are a measure of cellular age—than their healthy counterparts do. Up to 35% of chronic pain patients also have PTSD, and there is an even higher overlap between fibromyalgia and PTSD,” says Jain [2].

Somatic Stress

Sometimes, symptoms of traumatic stress can become somatized, which is when the pain of the event shows up as a genuine physical complaint, rather than emotional distress. This can often happen when the event is too daunting for the person to accept emotionally, if it is considered taboo by society, or if a physician doesn’t understand it.

Gordon says that everything that happens to us emotionally happens to our physical selves as well.

“If you look at people who go into a fight, flight, or freeze response, just look at the way they hold their bodies—they’re tense, they’re tight, their whole body is set up to protect them from a predator,” says Godon. “And I believe this tension is connected with the traumatic experience in ways we don’t completely understand.” [2]

Jill Blakeway, DACM, LAc, doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine, explains it as two aspects of memory: one that’s in our mind, and one that’s in our bodies- the latter, she says, tends to be ignored.

Read: Canada Will Let Terminally Ill Patients Use Psychedelic Mushrooms For End-Of-Life Care

Can We Release Stored Trauma?

It is not uncommon for people undergoing acupuncture,  a massage, or even while practicing yoga to burst into tears seemingly out of nowhere. Often the person themselves has no idea why they’re crying, and some experts believe it’s because they’re releasing some amount of repressed stress.

Blakeway has had many patients start crying while she’s giving them acupuncture treatment, and she believes it’s because she’s moving an area of stuckness that contains a memory. She explains that acupuncture helps patients modulate between the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest digest) systems to bring them to homeostasis. For some people this can bring about feelings of lightness and relief, while for others it can bring up certain experiences that need attention.

“Often patients on the table then start to have memories of things that they haven’t really thought about lately,” says Blakeway. “Sometimes they’ll say to me, ‘It’s not that I don’t know this happened to me; it’s just that I don’t go there very often in my head.'” [2]

One extreme example of this is when she was treating a patient who had been raped in college who had gone on to develop endometriosis. Blakeway treated her alongside a massage therapist, and says they slowly and gently helped her to unravel the experience in her body.

“What was interesting was that her endometriosis shrank even though we were treating the sort of psychological ramifications of it. This holding on, this clenching in her lower abdomen—which presumably started during the rape—and this wish never to go there again in her head meant that she wasn’t flowing.” [2]

Blakeway emphasises though that acupuncture is not a cure for trauma, and this woman was also seeing a therapist to help her deal with the events of her past.

Other Therapies Show Promise

Other physical therapies that may help to relieve stuck trauma include Emotional Freedom Technique (EET), in which acupuncture points along the body are manually stimulated through tapping. This technique has been shown to help relieve some of the symptoms associated with PTSD [4].

Gordon says that physical movement, touch, or anything that brings you more “into your body”, like deep belly breathing, can help someone heal from trauma.

“Every part of the body that has that tension may store some of the information about the trauma we experienced,” says Gordon. “So during something like a massage, what could be happening is that when somebody is working on the muscles and releasing that tension, the experience that is associated with that tension may be released.” [2]

Gordon also likes to use shaking and dancing as an effective way to heal from trauma.

“You stand up, put your feet shoulder-width apart, and you just start shaking from your feet up through your knees, hips, chest, shoulders, and head,” he says [2].

Some studies have also suggested that yoga and meditation can be effective complementary treatments for PTSD [5].

Emotional Releases Need to be Managed

Roberts says that the release of these deep, dark emotions isn’t always a good thing if it can’t be processed in a safe environment.

“Just like with PTSD, having flashbacks is not helpful. It’s only helpful if they’re treated and can be diminished,” she says [2].

Vora suggests supporting yourself through this process with a journaling practice, or having some type of therapeutic conversation, especially when you can’t quite identify where the emotions are coming from.

“It’s a gift when these things come up, but you want to be able to usher them up and out gracefully.” [2]

Trauma-focused therapies can be particularly helpful in these scenarios, such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) and somatic experiencing. EMDR is a psychotherapy treatment in which therapist-directed lateral eye movements, hand tapping, and audio stimulation are used to help a patient access and process traumatic memories [6].

Somatic experiencing is a body-oriented approach to releasing traumatic shock when a person is “stuck” in the flight-fight-freeze response [7].

The Bottom Line

We know that trauma and stress can manifest itself physically in our bodies, and while the science behind whether or not we can release that trauma through various forms of physical therapy is still unclear, anecdotal evidence seems to support this hypothesis.

More importantly, however, is that having an emotional release is only healthy if you’re able to properly deal with it. There is not one right way to deal with trauma, so if you uncover some repressed trauma in your life, the best thing to do is seek the professional help of someone who can walk you through it safely and help you come to terms with it, so it is no longer affecting your life.

Keep Reading: How Childhood Trauma Could Be Mistaken for ADHD