Trauma, the Nervous System, and Digestion
By: Angela Englander April 24, 2015
The Effects of Trauma
Following a traumatic experience some people may continue to feel that they are in danger, anxious, suspicious, on edge, or startle easily. Over the long term the person may experience sleep disturbances, appetite changes, sexual troubles, and problems concentrating. These symptoms are linked to the autonomic nervous system staying in a fight or flight mode due to traumatic hyper-arousal. This traumatic hyperarousal is created in a part of the brain called the limbic system which is located between the brain stem and cerebral cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for the flight or fight response when someone is in a dangerous and threatening situation. When this part of the brain is on high alert and the autonomic nervous system is staying active the brain is continuing to give the person the message that they are in danger and need to be on guard and ready to protect themselves. People experiencing this highly aware state may also continue to have episodes of the same physical symptoms they experienced during the trauma, for example they may have a fast heart rate, cold sweats, rapid breathing, be wary, anxious, and jumpy.
A Delicate Balance
The autonomic nervous system has two channels which normally function in a balance with one another, when one is active, the other is quite. These two channels are called the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is generally on when the person is excited, scared, or in a state of acute stress. The parasympathetic nervous system is often on when a person is relaxed, resting, or sleeping. When a traumatic experience happens the brain may send a message telling the two systems to turn on at the same time, in most people the sympathetic nervous system will turn off once the threat has passed but for people who continue on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder and other traumatic stress symptoms their brain never sends the signal that the threat has passed. The person may then continue to experience their trauma as if it continued to occur in the present moment instead of it having settled in their past as one might expect.
Here is where digestion comes in. Your body’s digestive system works best in ‘rest and digest’ mode; when the sympathetic nervous system is activated and the parasympathetic system is deactivated. People are often advised not to eat in front of the television, to sit down while they eat, and to be aware of what they are eating. This is important because when you are focusing on what you are eating the brain can begin to send more digestive enzymes to your mouth and stomach helping break down the food into nutrients. When the food is not properly broken down in the mouth and stomach the entire digestive system is affected. This can lead to a number of digestive problems and inflammatory reactions.
By learning some mindfulness techniques and finding support for your traumatic stress symptoms you can gain skills to help yourself out of your trauma and begin to feel more calm and at ease. As you learn mindfulness skills and distress tolerance skills you will learn how to quiet your mind and gain a better understanding of your emotions, your mind, your body, and the way all of these things interact and the meaning behind the different messages they are sending you.
If you have any questions please feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below. Thanks for reading!
Reference: Rothschild, B. (2000). The body remembers: The psychophysiology of trauma and trauma treatment. New York: Norton
Sanfilippo, D. (2012). Practical paleo: A customized approach to health and a whole-foods lifestyle. Las Vegas: Victory Belt Publishing.