Be Well: We All Have Trauma on the Brain

Living in chronic stress doesn’t just change your perspective; integrative health care providers say it physically alters the mind (and even your organ systems).

By Mpls.St.Paul Magazine

Stress can be a driving force for productivity—the edge we need to complete a work task, get through false starts at bedtime with the little ones, or to kick-start a laundry list of errands. That’s because that zap of adrenaline aids in our problem-solving mechanisms and serves as an intellectual and physical performance enhancer. It can be incredibly useful—until it’s not. And the gulf between those lines is shrinking.

When stress begins to snake into every waking minute of our days, inhabiting our minds and bodies, its operative potency begins to wane. The metamorphosis of acute, innocuous bouts of stress into an enduring state of fight or flight increases our vulnerability to trauma. In today’s pandemic and racial reckoning society, no one is spared.

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu was quoted at a news conference last March saying, “Mass trauma, which is beyond proportion, is even bigger than what the world experienced after the Second World War. And when there is mass trauma, it affects communities for many years to come.”

Erik Reis DC, DACNB, board-certified chiropractic functional neurologist at Northwestern Health Sciences University, seconds these statements, saying we’re all experiencing varied levels of trauma as the byproduct of living in 2021. Add to that, we’re “adapting to so many changing things with technology and living a fast-paced life, especially in the U.S.,” he says. “And this hustle culture is coming at the expense of our own health.”

Changing Your Mind (and Organs)

Trauma has long been perceived as an invisible illness, but that’s just not true—though we may be able to poker-face through our low moments, we’re not off the hook for physical, internal changes. Namely, our brains. When the brain experiences episodes of relived trauma or chronic, long-term stressors, the plasticity structurally reshapes itself to handle all the strain.

“With trauma, there are specific emotional centers that become more primed,” Reis explains. “Specifically, I’m talking about the amygdala, one of our primary centers for sensing emotions and triggering responses.” He says it’s been studied and understood in the medical community that chronic stress or chronic pain is associated with a larger amygdala. “The more the amygdala is fired, the easier it is to become activated and triggered, thus, causing a stress response to stimuli that didn’t used to be stressful because it’s so easily triggered now.”

In other words, stress begets stress and becomes more debilitating, a cycle that can take years—or even a lifetime—to undo. “Not only can it have a neurological effect of feeling more anxious or irritated, but you can experience more pain and cognitive disconnect,” he continues. “Moments where you don’t really feel like you’re you. This is what trauma does to us—it changes our perspective.”

Sarah Weaver, a licensed acupuncturist, board certified in therapeutic massage and bodywork, says that on a biochemical level, hormones like adrenaline and norepinephrine flood the body, mobilizing it when in danger. “The amygdala … becomes more active, and the hippocampus, which is part of the memory system, becomes smaller,” she says. “Part of what happens is that the brain gets stuck in the experience of danger and can’t reset to a state of not being in danger.”

Living in a chronically elevated state can also affect organ systems over time, like our closely-related immune and digestive functions. “Sixty to 70 percent of our immune system is found in the gut,” says Reis. “The food you eat and nutrition in your diet can impact the integrity of your immune system.” He says that people living in a chronic state of trauma struggle metabolically because there’s more inflammation in the body and brain. And when we can’t digest our foods properly, we become immunocompromised as a result.

“There’s a self-propagating cycle that occurs with that and unfortunately, a lot of people don’t realize they feel so bad,” he says. Until one day, they finally start to feel good.

Getting Back to You

There is a wide array of natural treatment options, including chiropractic care, that have shown positive results for patients who’ve experienced trauma, and Reis wants to break the misconception that all chiropractors do is “adjust.” “My goal in integrative care is to always help patients ‘update their software’—I want you to function at a higher level,” he says. “I can get 20 different people in my clinic with concussions, and each person will have a completely different, individualized treatment plan.” Those treatment plans may include nutrition protocols, rehabilitative exercises, structural modalities, and a prescription of massage therapy and/or acupuncture.

Weaver says that patients coming in to get seen will need to thoroughly explain their health history, along with the nature of the trauma, the extent of their symptoms, and the therapies that have been utilized. “In many ways, this is like any other patient we might treat,” she says.

“The difference is that we may need to shape a treatment around what helps an individual feel safer. A person may have body areas they feel protective of or positions, like laying down, that they might not tolerate.” They also may need a shorter session if they’re experiencing flashbacks [as can be the case with PTSD]. “Having a plan to help them reorient to the present moment during a treatment is important,” she says.

Since trauma can sometimes teeter into PTSD territory, Weaver clarifies the differences. “While the pandemic has been traumatic for everyone in general, the good news is that most people aren’t going to develop PTSD from it,” she says. “The people at risk for PTSD are people who lost family members, like parents or children, or people who were gravely ill but survived after a long fight in the hospital, or frontline healthcare workers who have been caring for COVID-19 patients.” For the rest of us, important self-care starts with eating well, getting enough sleep and exercise, spending time in nature, and maintaining our social connections.

“The number-one factor for longevity and quality of life is social relationships,” says Reis. “Human beings are soulful beings and always will be.”