How Trauma Affects Our Bodies

February 4, 2013

CARE for AIDS believes that both the physical and the spiritual is important, and for this reason have a “body + soul” approach to our ministry. As an aspiring counselor, I believe in this mission because, in the training I’m currently receiving, I’m learning how amazing the  connections our bodies, emotions, and thoughts have.

We can all relate to having a difficult experience whether it’s a painful injury, fearing for our safety, long term sickness, or a loved one dying. For some, this has been a long process of grieving, realizing the loss, and then making meaning of the experience. When this happens, our bodies respond to the stress biologically. During trauma, our brain begins releasing chemicals that tell our body to preserve ourself by either escaping, fighting, or freezing. At times, it’s possible to shut down completely because the amount of stress is too difficult to handle at that time and the body needs time to regain its strength.

This amount of stress leaves marks on our bodies and our spirits. If the “alarm system” in our bodies is overwhelmed or continuously threatened, our bodies begin to normalize this experience and are constantly on alert. Emotionally, we suffer and have feelings of despair.

However, because the brain is a muscle, we are able to strengthen it like a cognitive physical therapy. The stress response system largely occurs in the amygdala, the alarm system of the brain. The front part of the brain, called the prefrontal cortex, not only organizes thought, but also planning, behavior, sense of self, logic, and morality. It also, when activated, inhibits the rear section, allowing it to recover. What’s amazing is that our thoughts not only are affected by our body throughout this process but can also disrupt the process!

The goal of counseling is to activate the prefrontal cortex through exploration of meaning making and decision processes. As we exercise this part of the brain, the amygdala is able to rest and be ready to help again if stressed. Through healthy relationship in community, our thoughts and emotions reorient. Our bodies begin a process of healing.

The counselors at CARE for AIDS participate in this miraculous work every day. But, we can each be a part of healing in someone else’s life through encouragement, respect, and patience, and by reminding them of God’s love and strength that will continue to be available for them.

Have questions about counseling or about this research? The Boston Trauma Center has made leaps and bounds in understanding how our bodies heal from such shock. You can read more about their work and research  at

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