How Emotional Trauma Can Shape Your Physical Health—And Why Doctors Need To Understand It

Mara Santilli
Medically Reviewed
November 17, 2020

The traumas and emotional stressors you’ve experienced might be something you process with a therapist, as they can have a significant impact on your mental health, but it’s just as important to recognize how these events can affect your physical health as well. Whether it’s physical or psychological trauma or abuse, accidents, or family tragedies, socioeconomic stressors, or the stressors of existing in a non-white body, these are all factors in your health history and relevant to discuss with your care provider. The goal of Parsley Health’s team of practitioners is to examine and treat the health of the whole patient and that includes looking at how events in your life, or even in the life of your ancestors, might be impacting your health conditions today.

Here’s what we know about the role trauma plays in certain health conditions and how you can work toward acknowledging and healing it.

Types of trauma that can impact your health

“Somewhere along the way in the history of medicine, we decided to separate the mind and body, and have lost touch with just how intricately linked they are,” says Jamie Guyden, MD , a doctor at Parsley Health. “Our physical bodies are managing the trauma, conflict and shock that we experience,” Dr. Guyden adds. These are some of the different traumatic events that may have happened in your life that could have marked your health.

  • Physical or psychological abuse or harassment, from childhood or adulthood
  • Car accident or other type of accident
  • Pregnancy loss or traumatic birth
  • Death of a loved one
  • Surviving terrorism or war-related events
  • Enduring racial trauma that BIPOC communities have experienced for centuries

Health conditions related to trauma

Mental health conditions, particularly anxiety and depression, are the most obvious link between trauma and your health, Dr. Guyden says. “I often tell my patients who have significant trauma histories that having depression and anxiety (or any other emotional response, for that matter) is a completely appropriate response, as your body is signaling you to pay attention to something that is potentially buried or hidden or being activated in your body,” Dr. Guyden says.

Studies have also shown that traumatic events, including childhood trauma and abuse, can put you at risk for chronic diseases, including heart disease, respiratory illness, and diabetes. A study in the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology may offer a link as to why: People with PTSD may have higher levels of inflammation in the body. A strong body of research has shown chronic inflammation is associated with many chronic conditions, including autoimmune conditions, gut health issues, anxiety, and depression. Inflammation occurs as part of the immune response as a reaction to an attack or threat, whether real or perceived. Further research suggests that these prolonged stressors make it difficult for the body to reduce inflammation and therefore control some of these health conditions. This makes it even more crucial for your doctor to be aware of your entire health history to treat the interconnectedness of your symptoms.

How racial and historical trauma can impact BIPOC populations’ health

Though there’s still much research to be done regarding certain conditions affected by racial trauma, racism is a documented public health issue. The effects of racial trauma on the body are evidenced in statistics: Black adults are 20 percent more likely to experience psychological distress, and in the 35 to 64 age category, are 50 percent more likely to have high blood pressure than white adults, which is a significant marker of stress. Research from the National Institutes of Health has found that for Black communities, the stress comes not only from others’ overtly racist actions, but from experiencing more stressful life events in general, including microaggressions, economic difficulty, and caring for loved ones without adequate support and resources.

Dr. Guyden adds that really any chronic ailment can result from this kind of persistent stress over time. For example, the CDC states that Black people are three times more likely to develop and die from Lupus. Stress is not the only factor in causing an autoimmune disease , of course, but studies have shown that there is a definitive link between stress-related disorders and immune conditions.

To explain the health effects of generations of oppression on the Black community, Dr. Guyden cites the work of Joy Degruy Leary, Ph.D., Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing . Dr. Leary’s term, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, refers to the intense trauma and stress carried over from centuries of slavery, which persists with systemic racism (and the many ways slavery is reimagined in society, including in the criminal justice system). “She posits that how this plays out physically and emotionally is not different from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), where people experience intense psychological distress, along with physiological reactivity on exposure to internal and external clues, such as increased heart rate and blood pressure, fatigue , muscle tension, nausea, joint pain, headaches, insomnia , irritability, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, and depression,” Dr. Guyden says.

The effects of historical trauma are not unique to the Black community—the centuries of oppression, discrimination, and genocide that Indigenous populations in this country have endured is thought to be a contributing factor to higher rates of substance use disorders and other chronic conditions, research has found. Disparities in socioeconomic status and access to care are factors in the disproportionate rates of chronic conditions and disproportionate morbidity rates for BIPOC bodies, but racial and ancestral trauma can’t be ignored as factors in these communities’ health, says Dr. Guyden. “Hearing repeated racial slurs over time, having a sympathetic nervous system response when being pulled over by police, or consistently watching images of people of color being treated poorly or abused for example, quite possibly will lead to more severe disease symptoms, earlier onset and increased rates of dying from disease,” Dr. Guyden says.

Why it’s important to have a doctor who understands the connections between trauma and health

One of the purposes of functional medicine, and Parsley’s mission alike, is to focus on the whole patient: the synergy of mental and physical health. “As conventional medicine catches up with holistic medicine, we must, must, must stop viewing patients in parts and must honor that everything truly is connected in the body,” Dr. Guyden says.

For that reason, Parsley begins each patient’s care with an in-depth consultation that includes not just understanding symptoms and health history, but understanding any traumas or major life occurrences that could impact their health. Doctors also recommend advanced testing to determine any irregularities and talk about the patient’s immediate and long-term health goals. This combined picture helps practitioners understand the root cause of an illness and informs a personalized treatment plan.

In addition, care practitioners have to continue doing their own personal healing work before they can focus on healing patients, says Dr. Guyden. “Addressing our own trauma, grief and pain is the fastest way to not only identify it in those who come to be cared for but also allows us to truly be compassionate, loving and supportive along the way,” Dr. Guyden says. All Parsley Health care practitioners participate in anti-racism and LGBTQ+ education, and continuing that ongoing education is key to the practitioners’ personal and professional work toward fundamentally understanding and healing their patients.

What you can do to proactively take care of your health and move through trauma

Just because you’ve experienced trauma doesn’t necessarily mean you will develop a health condition, but there are things you can do to be proactive about your physical and mental health. First, know what trauma feels like when it’s showing up in the body. “Get to know your body. Begin an open dialogue with your body so that you can identify when it is out of balance,” Dr. Guyden says. This also involves connecting with practitioners who are trauma-informed, and especially those who “can identify with your story or experience,” adds Dr. Guyden. These are some other ways you can connect with your body and the trauma it’s experienced.

Start a regular mindfulness practice. This may include meditation , any of thousands of styles—Dr. Guyden recommends the app Insight Timer to find a variety of styles that may work for you. Mindfulness could also look like a mind-body practice, like yoga. Dr. Guyden especially suggests restorative, yin style yoga for healing. Sound therapy, like sound bowls or drumming, can be helpful to calm the mind and move trauma through the body, Dr. Guyden adds.

Get grounded. It sounds simple, but the practice of grounding , which involves getting outside for 20 minutes each day and walking, sitting or standing barefoot in the grass or dirt can be healing, and can potentially decrease inflammation, among other benefits, says Dr. Guyden. Of course if the climate in your area doesn’t permit being barefoot, a mindful walk in nature can also be beneficial to your mental health.

Write it out. Journaling is a process that Dr. Guyden recommends for reflective work on the trauma that you’ve experienced. Processing what you’ve written with a mental health practitioner, or even your health coach, can contribute to healing as well.

Focus on your nutrition and hydration. Especially if chronic inflammation is a contributing factor to your symptoms, either mental or physical, focus on staying properly hydrated and emphasizing anti-inflammatory foods and supplements in your diet, including fatty fish, and antioxidant-packed fruits and vegetables and spices, like turmeric. Calming inflammation can be a contributing factor to processing trauma in the body.

Mara Santilli

Mara is a freelance journalist whose print and digital work has appeared in Shape, Brit+Co, Marie Claire, Prevention, and other wellness outlets.

Most recently, she was a member of the founding team of Bumble Mag, a branded content project for Bumble at Hearst Corporation. She enjoys covering everything from women's health topics and politics to travel. She has a degree in Communications as well as Italian Studies from Fordham University.

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