Whether you’re newly diagnosed with PTSD or have been living with it for some time, its physical effects can be confusing. People often assume that PTSD and other anxiety issues are “only in the head.” But PTSD and other anxiety disorders affect the entire person.
The brain and body create a feedback loop with each other. What happens in one gives feedback to the other. Automatic reactions—whether physical, cognitive, or emotional—happen simultaneously as a result of this cycle.
Fortunately, understanding the way PTSD’s physical effects work in your body can give you important insight into managing it.
On High Alert
Many of PTSD’s physical effects are a direct result of how PTSD makes you feel like you always have to be on high alert. This happens subconsciously, without you even having to think about it. This tendency can also be referred to as hypervigilance.
Why This Happens
Your body is primed to remain on high alert because of how your parasympathetic nervous system responds to fear and threats. This system causes the fight-or-flight reaction, which all humans have as a resource to protect themselves.
Unfortunately, trauma can cause people to get trapped in this fight-or-flight state. It’s a physical state where your body sends out hormones to make you ready to respond.
As a result of these hormones, your breathing becomes faster, blood rushes to your heart, and your muscles tense. You feel fear. Experiencing trauma makes it very difficult for most people to release the fear and return to equilibrium.
The Feedback Loop
As mentioned above, your body and brain are an interconnected system. When you experience something that makes you feel anxious, such as a reminder of your trauma, your brain sends the message to your body to prepare.
Likewise, you might feel short of breath after a workout, but your brain automatically interprets this as a sign of anxiety and creates emotions to go along with it.
What This Looks Like
Physical effects of PTSD often include the following symptoms, due to the physiological reactions in your body described above.
Our muscles aren’t designed to be tense and ready to spring to action constantly. They need a chance to relax. But when your mind thinks you need to be on constant alert, your body doesn’t have a chance to relax. This leads to all kinds of muscle aches and headaches.
Many people with anxiety disorders struggle with insomnia. When your brain is constantly alert and feels threatened, it’s naturally going to have a hard time letting you sleep.
The physiological symptoms of PTSD also include stomach upset, digestive issues, and changes in appetite. This is because the hormones in the fight-or-flight reaction divert energy and blood away from the G.I. system. They want these important resources to go toward a quick response to threat.
Being on constant alert is exhausting. Of course, insomnia can contribute to this. But when your body is always tense and your heart rate elevated, you’ll experience even more fatigue.
It’s impossible to talk about the physical effects of PTSD without mentioning the emotional effects. They feed into each other, after all. Unfortunately, fatigue, hypervigilance, and anxiety can cause you to withdraw from loved ones. They can distort your thinking and your perception of yourself.
As this happens, the physical effects can respond with even stronger reactions.
Despite the power PTSD has on your mind and body, it’s important for you to know that it’s entirely possible to find healing.
Therapy for PTSD can help you uncover your unconscious physical reactions that lead to symptoms. It can also help you reframe your thoughts and emotional reactions.
If you’re ready to address PTSD’s influence on your life, please call my office to learn more.