The Biology of Abuse & Trauma Recovery

We all know that abuse, manipulation, and controlling relationships cause serious psychological consequences, and in some cases, lasting irreparable damage. Most abuse recovery models focus on rectifying these aftereffects and returning us as near as possible to a mental state where we would have been had we never suffered any abuse.

This only gets us so far, though, because, at the end of the day, abuse and mind control are things happens to our bodies as well as our minds. Even emotional and verbal abuse gets stored and recorded in our bodies. If we focus exclusively on our psychology, we’ll only partially recover because we’re leaving the physical effects untouched.

There is no magic barrier between our bodies and our brains. What happens in the brain affects the rest of the body. What happens in the body affects the brain. Today we’re going to take a look at how that happens and what we can do about it.

When someone abuses us, we learn that we’re not safe. Everything else in our lives could be perfect (though most of the time it isn’t). We learn that, as wonderful as things might appear, we aren’t really safe. We aren’t protected from harm the way we wish we were. If we were, this never would have happened to us.

We develop a heightened sense of danger that it might happen again and, most of the time, we’re right in this assessment.

Harm, danger, and fear cause our bodies to go into a fight or flight response. This doesn’t happen in our brains. Adrenaline, cortisol, endorphins, and other stress hormones get released from our bodily organs, which is why adrenaline feels like a burning in our guts.

These chemicals are what affect our brains on top of the obvious mental shock of finding out that we aren’t safe, that we don’t matter to the people around us, and that we can’t protect ourselves.

This is called the sympathetic nervous response and it comes with a host of physical symptoms. Our breathing becomes short and rapid. Our pulse speeds up as our heart pumps more blood to our muscles ready to react to any threat. Our muscles tense to spring. Our digestion shuts down so our bodies can be ready to deal with the more immediate problem of survival.

We developed this response to cope with predators who hunted and killed people in prehistoric times. The fight or flight response works well for short-term threats we can run away from, hide from, or fight off.

It doesn’t work near so well when we’re dealing with long-term threats where we’re living in unsafe environments, sometimes for years. This is the situation most of us endured growing up in abusive families or living in cults for decades.

When we live under constant threat of danger, harm, and mental and physical attack, the sympathetic nervous response becomes permanently switched on and overloads the physiology it was designed to protect. This can cause serious biological problems. This is where coping strategies we developed during our abuse can come back to haunt us years into adulthood and beyond.

Long-term stress, tension, danger, and threat depletes the very hormones, neurotransmitters, and nutrient stores that would allowed us to respond to the threat to begin with. Long-term, chronic adrenaline release causes what is known as adrenal fatigue which can lead to breakdown of multiple body systems.

This process has been called battle fatigue, nervous collapse, nervous exhaustion, nervous breakdown, burnout, and a lot of other names. These are all different names for adrenal fatigue, which means that our bodies have been in a state of fight or flight for far too long.

Adrenal fatigue feels like we’re hanging on by our last thread. We feel completely drained and exhausted. We feel like the slightest insult or stressor will push us over the edge and we’ll completely break down. We feel like we just can’t handle the stresses in our lives and we’re barely holding ourselves together. Just sitting in one place trying to breathe can be more than we can endure.

This happens when we live in a constant state of fear, danger, and lack of safety from a wide variety of sources. Abusive relationships, tyrannical oppression, slavery, war, prostitution, chronic poverty, and starvation can all cause adrenal fatigue and biological breakdown on many levels.

Lack of proper nutrition from eating disorders can also cause a danger response in our bodies. Lack of sleep, chronic stress, insufficient free time and decompression time can also produce the same effect.

All of these put our bodies into a danger response that becomes permanent when we can’t or don’t know how to turn it off.

Our rational mental functioning becomes impaired and our reflexes suffer because our neurotransmitters are depleted. Our muscles become chronically tense. We develop startle responses that cause us to become hyperalert even when we aren’t in actual danger. We suspect innocuous people of threatening us because we can no longer tell whether a situation is truly dangerous or not.

So how do we turn this off?

There is a corresponding system known as the parasympathetic nervous response designed to help us relax once the threat has passed. This is the process of lengthening and deepening our breathing, slowing our heartrate, reactivating digestion, and resuming blood flow to our extremities so that we can return to what is called homeostasis. We can only do this by relaxing the alert systems that caused us to tense when we were in danger.

We need to activate our parasympathetic nervous system in order to fall asleep and to digest our food. This is why we find it hard to sleep when we don’t feel safe or under stress. We feel like our stomachs are tied up in knots and we can’t eat when we’re anxious, nervous, or scared.

The good news here is that our bodies cannot engage both the parasympathetic response and the sympathetic response at the same time.

There are many methods designed to activate the parasympathetic response. We can use self-hypnosis. This is the process of concentrating on progressive relaxation, deepening our breathing, and feeling a sensation of warmth, softness, and wellbeing spread through our bodies. 

Heart rate variability monitors record the parasympathetic nervous response directly and send immediate feedback so we can entrain it to our regular state of being. There are dozens of other methods to accomplish the same thing.

I learned self-hypnosis while preparing for natural childbirth. The sympathetic system causes tension and fear that can lead to complications in childbirth. The solution is to activate the parasympathetic system through self-hypnosis, acupressure points, and meditation that put the body into a state of deep relaxation, wellbeing, and calm.

When we activate the parasympathetic response, we automatically turn off the fight or flight response. We’re either doing one or the other. We can’t do both at the same time. If we can learn to spot when we’re having a danger response to a situation that isn’t actually dangerous (or even one that is), we can turn it off by practicing progressive relaxation, breathing techniques, and other parasympathetic-inducing activities.

This probably sounds impossible, but it just takes practice. The alternative is living in a constant state of fear, tension, and unsafety, so the better we get at controlling these responses, the better off we’ll all be.

Chronic stress and adrenal fatigue are associated with increased disease and death from all sources. They can interfere with our careers, our relationships, our social lives, and a host of other negative consequences.

I’m quite sure that most survivors reading this understand exactly what I’m talking about. We walk around constantly stressed, jumpy, tense, and scared out of our wits, both from dangers we know about and ones we don’t know about. We’re constantly on the lookout for the next threat coming around that corner. 

In addition to practice, learning to entrain our parasympathetic response also requires us to be in a completely safe situation. If we’re under threat from others or even from ourselves, it won’t work because, guess what, we aren’t actually safe. We’ll continue to experience a danger response. We’ll never turn it off because our bodies are smart enough to know that we aren’t safe enough to relax. 

The first, most important step is to get somewhere quiet, private, and absolutely safe. We need to be able to tell ourselves that we’re safe and for it to be true in the deepest sense of the word.

Only then can we start to practice deactivating our fight or flight response and activating our relaxation response. Only then can we begin to entrain these patterns for long-term use.

One of the most common suggestions that I used to give myself when I was practicing self-hypnosis was, “All’s right with the world.”

I could only do this when I was outside and I knew for certain that no one was going to come near me. I would look up at the sky, either dotted with clouds if it was daytime or stars if it was nighttime, and the sight of that sky would be my touchstone, my safe place. That sky WAS all right. That sky was perfect the way it was. It wasn’t threatening me, and in that moment, all really was right with the world.

That’s how I started to learn that, yes in fact, I could find perfect safety SOMEWHERE in the world, even if I couldn’t find it in very many other places. This is how we learn to distinguish what is safe for us and what is not. We might have spent decades in a situation where NOTHING was safe. 

Now it’s time for us to start puzzling out the safe from the not safe. We do that one piece at a time, one situation at a time, one relationship at a time, one square foot at a time. We carve out ONE place in the whole world where we can be perfectly safe, even if it’s in the middle of some field miles from another human being. Only then can we really trust that we are safe. After that, we find one more place. Then another.

Danger and abuse also affect our brain wave patterns. Our brains utilize various wave states that activate depending on our situation. When we’re in a normal alert, decision-making state, solving problems, and engaging in everyday tasks, we go into a Beta brainwave pattern.

When we close our eyes and relax our minds, we go into an Alpha brainwave pattern characteristic of mediation, creative flow, and a sense of wellbeing and connection to the cosmic unity of it all (for lack of a better term). This is the state that saints and yogis enter when they pray, meditate, and commune with what they perceive to be the Divine.

There are also Theta waves associated with daydreaming and meditative states, Gamma waves that occur in peak mental states, and the Delta wave patterns of deep sleep and dreaming.

All meditation is designed to bring us to a place where we can control both our brain wave patterns and our sympathetic-parasympathetic nervous responses. This is the ultimate goal of ALL meditation. We can do this without all the New-Age hocus-pocus normally associated with meditation.

There are plenty of nonsectarian methods to accomplish this without subscribing to any ideology. We can do this simply by learning to recognize the different wave states and practicing switching between them when we choose. 

The take-home point here is that people can learn to control which brainwave pattern they engage in. Using a combination of practice and biofeedback, people can train their brains to spend more time in an Alpha state or even a Theta state.

This removes us from the Beta state of coping, problem-solving, and daily operational tasks. We begin to spend more of our daily lives in a state of bliss, connection, and flow.

Last of all, we store information about our abuse by permanently imprinting these states into our bodies. Chronically tense muscles become depleted of the energy molecules needed to hold them in a contracted state for an extended period of time. 

Our bodies compensate by solidifying the connective tissue layer around our muscles. All our muscles have a sheath of connective tissue surrounding them. Under normal circumstances, this sheath is supple, rubbery, and pliable. 

When we hold a muscle in a chronic state of tension, the connective tissue layer becomes dehydrated, turning it into a solidified, hardened mass. Eventually, the muscle can no longer relax at all because it’s been in a contracted state for too long. The tissue becomes almost like bone that requires deep pressure, massage, and manipulation to free it and make it soft again.

This causes big problems because that contracted muscle can’t release toxins. Blood flow becomes restricted and toxins build up in the muscles. This is why cancerous tumors are associated with emotional blockages and traumatic memories stored in our organs and tissues.

Most survivors can relate to chronic muscle tension that feels like we cannot relax it no matter how hard we try. We spend so many years fearful and hyperalert to the slightest hint of danger that we don’t know how to turn this off even when we know we’re out of danger.

The solution is to release those muscles, restore blood flow, and to unlock connective tissue restrictions. We can accomplish this through massage and various styles of body work. We could visit a professional to do this for us, but we can also do it on our own, at our own pace, in the privacy of our own homes. Doing it this way ensures that we don’t push ourselves too far or put ourselves in additional danger by overextending ourselves beyond our safety zones. It also skips the problem of a total stranger touching us in ways that could cause us to tense and have yet another danger response.

One technique that works really well is trigger point and myofascial release using a tennis ball or roller. We can buy these rollers online or in sports shops, but a tennis ball works perfectly well for a fraction of the price.

I use a tennis ball to release tension in my back, shoulders, head, and neck as well as my legs and glutes. I do this by lying down in a comfortable position on the floor or my bed. I put the ball where I feel like I would want someone to massage me.

Sometimes I lean against a wall to get between my shoulder blades, and often I’ll lie on my bed with the ball under the back of my skull. I ease into it and give myself exactly the amount of pressure that feels best for me. This is a great way to get rid of tension headaches.

Roll into it and build up your tolerance until you can really lean into your toughest problem spots. In time, you’ll begin to feel the tissue release. You’ll be able to tell how much pressure to use and when you need to work on yourself. I also put the ball under my thigh as I lie on my side. This might be painful for you at first, so take it slow and go at a pace that feels safe and beneficial for you. I have even gotten so relaxed doing this that I’ve fallen asleep with the ball under me.

So thank you for reading today. I hope this helps someone out there. There is a wealth of work to be done freeing our bodies from the long-term aftereffects of our abusive experience. It isn’t all in our heads and our bodies are waiting for us to free them from their prisons.

If you need help right now with this or any other aspect of your recovery, send me a message through the content page or hit that chatbot button at the bottom of the screen. We’ll get started resolving your toughest problems so you can start living a better quality of life. You don’t have to do this alone anymore.