Physiological Responses to Stressful or Traumatic Events: Part 2

Part II includes self-help ideas that I believe can be valuable in mitigating some of the effects of trauma or chronic stress in your life.


I started this article by saying that trauma and stress are all about the body.  What that means is that your job is to pay attention to your body and make every effort to take care of it.  I know that is easier said than done.  I also know that when we are anxious, depressed, traumatized, or otherwise in a difficult mental state, we are most apt to resort to old familiar behaviors.  Resorting to the familiar, while compelling, is not necessarily a given.  It does however require that you stay present and mindful about what is happening around you and how you are feeling in your own skin. If you stay present, rather than dwelling on past regrets or resentments or imagining and trying to predict the future, you will be better able to identify when you are caught in old behavioral patterns.  Mindful self-awareness is the essential key ingredient…no doubt difficult, but always possible even if you practice in five-minute, two minute, or even one minute segments during the course of the day.  The more you practice, the better able you will be to identify what is happening to you.  Our bodies do not lie…our brains can and do…we are all adept at spinning a narrative about why this or that is happening or why we made this choice and not that one.  The body does not have the capacity to reason…it just has sensations.  Our job is to discern the meaning of our tight, nauseous stomach or tense left shoulder.  Once we notice the bodily sensation, we can begin to identify what may have happened immediately prior to our nausea or our shoulder smacking our ear…. Perhaps some man walked by you wearing the same aftershave lotion your uncle; the sexual perpetrator in your life wore.  Your left shoulder raises as a protective movement to ward off his behind your back approach; an adaptive, appropriate defensive reaction.  Our bodies remember everything…and here you are in the present, reliving, through your body, your past trauma.  Body oriented psychotherapy can help you unwind the historical context and assist you in learning how to be in the present, so that your past isn’t constantly jumping between you and your present life.

I’m neither a scientist, a biologist, nor a neurologist so I cannot offer in depth information about all the specific details of what happens to our bodies, but I do know the following:  adrenalin dehydrates us.  I suspect most of us can recall the first time we had to stand up in front of a class and our mouth felt like cotton and we felt as though we could barely open our mouth.  Strategy numero uno is, hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.  There is another reason to hydrate; if you do not discharge the glucose that has been projected to your large muscles, your legs and your arms will likely ache and you might feel as if in fact you just dug a ditch. Discharging the glucose requires hydration and exercise.  When I say hydrate, I’m not talking about sodas, seltzer water, juice, or of course alcoholic beverages.  I’m talking about pure water.  Drink enough water so that you are going to the bathroom three times more than usual to flush the adrenalin out of your system.  At least twenty minutes of some physical activity per day is also very beneficial.  Walk, swim, dust off your bike or roller blades, dance to your favorite music, yoga, zumba, whatever…move your body.  You will feel much better.  Part of the reason you will feel better is that your breathing will automatically deepen when you exercise.

Our breathing is often erratic and shallow when we are anxious or in a state of shock.  In order for us to think clearly and make good decisions, deep diaphragmatic breathing is essential.  I will talk about breathing and meditation at another time, however if you are already familiar with a meditation tape or better yet, a meditation class, I wholeheartedly recommend that you start now.  I frequently say to my clients, that oxygen is the best drug I know.  You can take it wherever you are in the world and it’s free.  If you access it mindfully and deeply your whole system will calm down in response.

Isolation is often one of the ingredients for depression or anxiety.  It is important to have a support network.   Identify someone you can trust, whether it’s a family member, a long time friend, a teacher or a coach, a therapist.  The important factor here is that you select someone to whom you are not obligated, and in turn, that person is not obligated to you.  Select someone you can trust with your feelings and your thoughts.  No one can fix you, but someone can always be there to hold your hand and listen, give you a hug, or offer you support in other nurturing and healthy ways.

Journaling can be cathartic.  I often suggest that my clients either write first thing in the morning or an hour or more before bedtime to leave the monkey-mind thoughts on paper…let the ruminations go into a drawer or closet, maybe even outside in the glove compartment of your car.  Communicate to your body that it is time to rest, to sleep, to leave the anxious thoughts aside.  Ruminating and worry has never changed anything in anyone’s life. Deliberate, mindful action can make the difference.  Without sleep, our bodies do not heal.  You need to develop healthy strategies that allow you to sleep deeply so your body heals and is rejuvenated.

An important part of any healthy strategy must include sensible nutrition.  When your body is struggling with anxiety or trauma, keep in mind that your gastrointestinal system has been hijacked, if you will, by the hormones designed to prepare you for survival.  Often people report that they either have no appetite or instead feel ravenous.  Both reactions on the continuum are normal physiological responses, however, in order to actively participate in the healing process, it is critical to that you either work on feeding yourself healthy food even if you have no appetite or working on moderating your food intake.

As stated before, when you are anxious stress hormones compromise your digestive system, so eating easily digestible foods makes sense.  Red meat is hard to digest, so eliminating that from your diet during these hard times is recommended.  Our muscles, connective tissue, hair, neurotransmitters, and more are all made up of protein or at least partially made up of protein.  To stay strong and healthy we need to eat a balance of protein.  How much protein we need depends in part on our age, size, and body weight, however, we use protein up during the course of the day and don’t store it as we do other foods, so we need to keep replenishing the protein to keep our muscles supple and healthy.  That includes that grey matter muscle, our brain…we need to feed our brain especially when we are anxious, traumatized, or otherwise emotionally upset.  Eggs, beans, dairy products, leafy greens, fish, and poultry for example all offer you needed protein.  If you are a vegetarian, a variety of food combinations will offer you a complete protein.  There are so many websites and information these days.  Just google vegetarian complete protein sources and you will find enough options to keep you busy and most importantly well informed.  Fresh fruit and vegetables are important.  Keep away from simple carbs…ah those comfort foods.  They’ll give you a quick high, but the low will smack you upside your head and contribute to an already bumpy emotional roller coaster.  Sugar…stay away from sugar and caffeine if you can.  You’re already jittery.  You contribute to your biochemical upheaval by consuming these foods…I know you want to be comforted, but this sort of comfort is hollow and short lived.  Better to call a friend, take a walk, play with your dog or cat, or listen to your favorite music than to fill your body with foods that wreak havoc with an already upset system.

So let’s talk briefly about alcohol.  How many times have you either said or heard someone say I’m so stressed out I need a drink.  No doubt in the short term, alcohol as a coping strategy works or at least seems to…or maybe not. The physiological affects of alcohol on the body often match the stress response.  However, if your go-to coping strategy is the alcohol bottle, the long term negative affects and the toll on your body are enormous.   The majority of my clients who drink alcohol report that sleep is compromised.  As stated earlier, sleep is critical for healing…rather drink chamomile tea, or take a hot bath with lavender bath salts, or sit before sleep listening to quiet, soothing music, perhaps with a lavender eye pillow (lavender is a soothing herb).   I’m not going to dwell on alcohol consumption as a coping strategy, but again check the web, read about alcohol and stress, the physiological affects of alcohol, and much more to educate you on this as a coping strategy.


To summarize, the following are suggested coping strategies and interventions when experiencing anxiety, trauma, or any emotional distress.

1.  Hydrate – drink pure water

2. Feed your body protein, fresh vegetables and fruits – reduce or eliminate red meat consumption during this time period.  Instead eat foods you know are easily digestible.

3.  Exercise at least 20 minutes per day

4.  Do not isolate – talk to friends

5.  Journal

6. Make sure you have healthy strategies that will assist you in calming your system enough so that you sleep.  If you cannot sleep and none of your strategies work, it’s time to visit your primary physician for gentle, short-term sleep aids.