When a young person experiences highly distressing incidents in their life, it can pose a significant threat to their physical or psychological well-being. While most young individuals are resilient and capable of processing their emotions over time without enduring long-term consequences, there are instances where severe and disruptive traumatic reactions occur.
The ways in which trauma is expressed in the body can differ from person to person, influenced by factors such as the nature of the traumatic event, past and current life stresses, one’s personality, and available coping resources. Equally crucial for young people is the kind of support and responses they receive from caregivers during and after such distressing events. The majority of young individuals are able to recover well with the help of family and friends, and do not experience long-lasting concerns.
Following a traumatic event, it is natural for a child to experience both psychological and physiological effects on their body. These bodily effects are commonly referred to as the ‘flight, fight, or freeze’ response. The concept of trauma being ‘stored within the body’ reflects the idea that the body’s stress response system can be altered due to the impact of the traumatic incident. For some, these reactions do not subside over a few days or weeks; instead, the symptoms may persist and intensify.
Prolonged stress responses in the body can result in problems with regulating emotions, sleeping patterns, eating habits, and focus. The body reacts to stress by increasing heart rate, inducing muscle tension, causing difficulties in calming down, heightened sensitivity to external sights and sounds in the environment, and frequent bouts of crying. Sometimes, there can be unexplained outbursts of irritability and anger, which are often easily misunderstood as disruptive behaviors.
Young individuals may also be overly concerned with death or their own safety, as well as the well-being of those around them. Sleep disturbances can emerge, driven by nightmares or a heightened sense of danger. In cases of disasters, recurrent disturbing thoughts of the past events may return frequently, and the child may be overly concerned about the possibility of another similar event occurring again.
Trauma can alter particular brain regions involved in processing fear and stress. This can result in an overactive bodily response to perceived danger, and the stress responses in the body can be triggered easily. Sometimes these changes are transitory, while in other situations, these changes may continue to interfere with relationships and day-to-day functioning. While these changes can impact one’s life, the good news is that these alterations are reversible. Acquiring skills in coping, such as emotion regulation, can help one understand their nervous system better, and healing lies in reprogramming the body towards a calmer state.
The journey of healing from trauma is a process that is unique to each individual. There is no ‘one size fits all’ plan that will work for everyone. Nonetheless, the evidence suggests that when a trauma survivor is equipped with knowledge and tools to learn about the effects of trauma, acquiring new coping skills over time can effectively reduce, or even eliminate, symptoms of trauma that have impacted their physical and psychological well-being.
Clare Kwan
Principal Psychologist
Private Space Medical