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Trauma or Chronic Stress?

by Jordan Heffner

Did you know that chronic stress has the same impact on the body physiologically that witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event does?

0509531001601304976.jpgTrauma is often defined as anything witnessed or experienced that is beyond a person’s ability to cope at the time. We often think of this as a terrible car accident, a natural disaster, or experiencing domestic violence. However, there are many things that can fit into the category of “trauma” since situations and experiences are different for everyone and people’s abilities to cope vary. Some might view the loss of a job or the experience of losing a loved one as traumatic, some may view a breakup or divorce as such.

Trauma impacts the body and the brain in a variety of ways. One such way is causing a disruption to our nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our “fight, flight, or freeze” responses, such as pressing the brake in the car when someone pulls out in front of us. During this response we may yell and scream at the person who pulled out in front of us as a “fight” response, we may move far away from them on the road as a “flight” response to get out of the situation, or we may even “freeze” staying stopped in our car in disbelief at what we just experienced. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for bringing us back to a calm state, typically known as “rest and digest”. In this state we feel calmer, more relaxed, and our body can digest food, as well as, breath slowly and more deeply.

When we experience trauma the ability to move smoothly and appropriately between these two systems can get off track. 

“Our bodies are well equipped to handle stress in small doses, but when that stress becomes long-term or chronic, it can have serious effects on your body” (Stress, 2018). Chronic stress can consist of a wide spectrum of events from being stuck in a negative work environment to having to consistently worry about where you will live or when you will get food again. Chronic stress also can:

  • send our body into a “fight, flight, or freeze” response, much like experiencing a traumatic event. Chronic stress increases muscle tension within the body that when continuously in a tense state can lead to migraines and chronic pain (Stress, 2018).
  • negatively impact the respiratory system, causing lungs to constrict with rapid breathing or hyperventilating (Stress, 2018). 
  • increases cortisol in the body, often referred to as the “stress hormone”, which over time can negatively impact the communication between the brain and immune system, leading to fatigue, depression, health conditions, and even metabolic or immune disorders (Stress, 2018).

Being able to manage stress in a healthy way can make a significant difference to one’s physical health, and mental and emotional state. 

During difficult times such as those we are currently facing with the pandemic of COVID-19, it is extremely important to find healthy ways of coping with stress in order to prevent the development of chronic stress. Taking a walk outside, practicing deep breathing, getting support through therapy or from loved ones, and increasing creative outlets are all examples of ways to increase self-care and decrease stress. Taking small steps to change how we hold onto stress can have lasting positive effects on our overall wellbeing.


Stress effects on the body. (2018, November 1). American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/topics/stress-body

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