Are You Showing Trauma Symptoms in Your Relationship? How Our Bodies Experience the Trauma of Intimate Betrayal

By Kristin Minto Snowden

When you are in the throes of betrayal trauma, the emotions can feel overwhelming and out-of-control. It’s important to educate yourself on how your body is responding to the perceived threats around you.

Peter Levine, PhD, a well-known trauma therapist, uses a wild animal’s escape from a predator to help us better understand how our bodies experience trauma. First, the animal senses there is a threat (i.e., a seal notices something threatening, perhaps a shark). That perceived threat triggers the fight/flight/freeze sympathetic nervous system, causing a heightened alertness (i.e., the seal senses the shark and swims away quickly). When the seal’s body system is triggered in this way, with a rapid heart rate, swimming as fast as possible, and lack of oxygen, its body releases natural opiates (pain-relievers), helping the seal overcome fatigue as it tries to escape (and also preparing the animal for death if it’s unable to escape). If the animal escapes death, it will violently shake afterward, discharging the stimulus. The shaking is how the parasympathetic system down-regulates the physiological effects of threat response. Then the animal can carry on like nothing happened.

Levine asserts that humans, unlike a seal, can get stuck in the flight/fight/freeze cycle, and that is why the longer-term effects of trauma can occur. In his book, Waking the Tiger, he writes:

Traumatic symptoms are not caused by the “triggering” event itself. They stem from the frozen residue of energy that has not been resolved and discharged; this residue remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreak havoc on our bodies and spirits. The long-term, alarming, debilitating, and often bizarre symptoms of PTSD develop when we cannot complete the process of moving in, through, and out of the “immobility” or “freezing” state.

Many facets of the body’s response to trauma are involuntary. However, there are many trauma treatments that focus on slowing down the process—mitigating the involuntary responses while helping clients regain some semblance of safety and control when faced with a threat response. Thus, trauma treatment includes various exercises and tactics used to discharge the stimulus, down-regulate the threat response, and process the traumatic event. A few of the more common treatment protocols are:

  • Behaviorally focused therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Somatic Experiencing (SE)
  • Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)
  • Neurofeedback
  • Meditation/Mindfulness
  • Dance/Movement/Breath Work
  • Medication Management

If powerful and overwhelming emotions are negatively impacting your ability to function and work through the healing process, I encourage you to seek help from a trauma specialist. Once your trauma is explored, understood, and validated, the healing can begin.

As Danielle Bernock writes in her book, Emerging With Wings:

Trauma…does not disappear if it is not validated. When it is ignored or invalidated the silent screams continue internally, heard only by the one held captive. When someone enters the pain and hears the screams, healing can begin.

In this post and my previous post (here), we explored the basics of trauma, including its symptoms and effects, and we’ve introduced various treatment options. My next post will explore the steps you can take to start feeling safe again.