Unexpected physical symptoms of PTSD
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) are conditions that can have a significant impact on an individual’s mental and emotional well-being. However, it is important to note that PTSD and C-PTSD can also have physical symptoms that can greatly affect an individual’s overall health and quality of life.
Cortisol is a pretty amazing hormone that plays a big role in our bodies. It helps to convert proteins into energy, which is what gets us going in the morning. It also helps keep our sugar levels and blood pressure in check, and helps regulate our immune system.
When we’re under stress, cortisol works to shut down certain functions (like reproduction and the immune system) so that our body can focus all its energy on dealing with the stress at hand. These effects are usually short-lived, but for people with PTSD or C-PTSD, the stress response system can stay activated and that can lead to altered cortisol levels. People with PTSD and C-PTSD almost always have altered cortisol levels: too high in some people, and too low in others.
The mind and body connection is very much real, and when you start to suffer mentally, your physical wiring also starts to ‘short-circuit’. The prolonged exposure to these unbalanced levels hormones can cause some unexpected, uncomfortable physical problems.
Your Skin may scar more easily
When our body experiences stress (or remains in a constant state of stress due to PTSD or C-PTSD), it activates various mechanisms to protect us. One of the things it does is draw water away from our outer layers of skin. This is thought to be a way to conserve water in case of an emergency situation. However, this can have some negative effects on our skin. When there’s less water in our skin, it’s not able to repair and regenerate itself as easily. This means that even small cuts or grazes can leave scars. It can also make our skin feel very dry and itchy, and can even lead to skin conditions like acne, rosacea, eczema, or psoriasis.
All of these symptoms can be frustrating and even painful. It’s important to remember that our skin is not only our largest organ but also a very delicate one. It’s constantly exposed to the elements and it’s important that we give it the care it needs. When our body is in a constant state of stress, it can be difficult for our skin to heal and stay healthy. So, it’s important to take care of our mental health and try to keep our stress levels under control to ensure that our skin is able to function at its best.
You can help your skin by drinking enough water, using gentle skincare products, and avoiding things that dry out your skin like hot showers or harsh soaps. Find out more about the link between skin and PTSD here.
You may not be able to sleep
Another physical symptom that can be experienced with PTSD and C-PTSD is poor sleep. Individuals with PTSD may have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep due to the constant state of stress and anxiety. This can lead to chronic fatigue, which can further exacerbate physical symptoms such as pain and muscle tension. This can make it difficult for individuals to carry out daily activities and can greatly affect their quality of life.
Your ears may ring
Have you ever experienced ringing in your ears, also known as tinnitus? It can be quite frustrating. Research has shown that when we experience tinnitus, the limbic part of our brain, which is responsible for stress regulation, goes into overdrive. This is the same part of the brain that is affected in individuals with PTSD and C-PTSD.
Normally, our ears send a stream of nerve impulses to the brain which are interpreted as sound. However, when we’re under stress, or experiencing PTSD and C-PTSD, the ear can send an abnormal stream of impulses that the brain interprets as ringing in the ears. This is not only frustrating, but can also be a reminder of the traumatic event that caused the PTSD and C-PTSD.
For many people, PTSD and C-PTSD causes changes in auditory processing, which is the way our brain collects and interprets sound. This can lead to a variety of conditions and symptoms, such as difficulty hearing or understanding what others are saying, feeling like your ears are blocked, or experiencing hearing loss – find out more about hearing/sound difficulties and PTSD here.
You might gain weight – particularly around your stomach
Cortisol, the hormone that is released during times of stress, can have a significant impact on weight gain and the storage of fat in our bodies. Research has shown that high cortisol levels are closely linked to the relocation of fat to the stomach area, also known as visceral fat. This is because fat cells in the stomach have four times more cortisol receptors compared to fat cells in other parts of the body.
Additionally, when cortisol levels are high, it can also lead to excessive eating and cravings for sugary and fatty foods, which can further contribute to weight gain. This is particularly challenging for individuals with PTSD and C-PTSD, as they are already dealing with the emotional and psychological effects of their trauma.
PTSD and C-PTSD can also disturb the functioning of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the sympathetic nervous system, which play a role in regulating body processes such as metabolism. This can make it even harder for people with PTSD or C-PTSD to control their weight.
One individual with PTSD commented on their experience, “When I had PTSD, losing weight was almost impossible. I was signed off work, and I’d go to the gym almost every day – but over a 4 month period I only lost 1 pound.”
It’s worth noting that for some people, they may also lose weight due to the fluctuating hormones and cortisol levels that occur with PTSD and C-PTSD.
Your Digestion may change
You may have heard someone say “you scared the **** out of me” before, and it’s not just an expression – it’s based on truth. When we experience fear or stress, our body releases a hormone called corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), which can have a big impact on our intestinal function. Our body’s fear response believes that by removing any excess weight from our system, it will allow us to flee from a dangerous situation more quickly. That’s why many animals (and humans) will experience diarrhoea when they’re scared.
For people with PTSD or C-PTSD, the release of CRF can remain in their system for long periods of time, causing disruptions to their digestive system. It can even lead to conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) in some people.
Cortisol, another hormone that’s released during times of stress, can also have an impact on our digestion. High cortisol levels can lead to bloating, gas, indigestion, heartburn, acid reflux, and other irritable bowel problems. Excess cortisol can erode the lining of our digestive tract, causing inflammation, and it can also inhibit our stomach from digesting food properly.
You may get frequent aches and pains
Prolonged exposure to high cortisol levels, as a result of PTSD, can have a significant impact on our bodies. It can deplete our adrenal glands, which are responsible for producing hormones that help us deal with stress. When the adrenal glands are depleted, it can lead to an increase in the level of prolactin, which is a hormone that can make us more sensitive to pain. This means that people with PTSD or C-PTSD may experience real physical pain as a result of their condition.
In addition to this, the anxiety and hypervigilance that often come with PTSD can also put extra tension on our muscles and joints. One individual with PTSD commented on their experience, “I’d wake up in the morning and my wrists and ankles would be agony – I’d been sleeping in such a tight, wound-up position that my joints just couldn’t keep up.”
You may find it challenging to build and maintain muscle
Cortisol, the hormone that is released during times of stress, can have a significant impact on our ability to gain muscle. When cortisol levels are high, it can restrict the uptake of amino acids into the muscle cells, making it difficult for our muscles to grow and recover. This can make it almost impossible to gain muscle and any muscle that is gained can be lost in a matter of days.
Furthermore, when cortisol levels are high, it can also lead to overtraining, which creates more stress on our body. This in turn leads to the release of more cortisol and adrenaline, which interferes with the release of growth hormones and further reduces muscle growth and recovery. It’s a vicious cycle that can be hard to break out of.
It’s important to remember that our body needs time to recover and repair itself, especially after a workout. Pushing ourselves too hard can lead to injury and further stress on our body. It’s important to be kind to ourselves and our body, and take any training and exercise at a sensible pace.
You may get icy hands and feet
When our body is in a state of fight, flight, or freeze, it redirects blood flow away from our extremities and towards our larger organs in the torso, such as the heart and lungs. This is an important mechanism that helps to protect these vital organs and ensure our survival. However, for individuals with PTSD or C-PTSD, this state of heightened alertness and stress can be constant, leading to chronic poor blood flow to the hands and feet.
Fatigue can also cause a decrease in blood flow to the hands and feet, which can make them feel even colder. Additionally, chronic stress and anxiety can cause changes in the body’s hormone levels, leading to constricted blood vessels and poor circulation.
This can make the fingers and toes feel cold, even in warm environments and in some cases, the toes may even appear white due to the lack of blood flow. One individual with PTSD commented on their experience, “At times, my toes would be white – they looked close to falling off – it seemed like there was almost no blood in them at all.”
You might find you yawn more
PTSD and C-PTSD can have a significant impact on our bodies, including the way we sweat and breathe. One common symptom of both PTSD and C-PTSD is nervous sweating, which can be caused by the constant state of stress and anxiety experienced.
Another symptom that is often associated with PTSD and C-PTSD is yawning. Yawning is the body’s way of regulating the temperature of the brain. When the brain gets too hot, yawning helps to cool it down by increasing the flow of oxygen and blood to the brain. This is why you may notice that you yawn more frequently when you’re feeling anxious or stressed.
Additionally, the quickened breathing that often comes with PTSD and C-PTSD can make the brain think that it’s not getting enough air, causing individuals to take deep inhales of a yawn. This is a reflex mechanism that helps to increase the oxygen levels in the body and brain, which can help to reduce feelings of anxiety and stress.
Allergies may flare up, or you may develop new ones
Your immune system plays a vital role in keeping you healthy and protecting your body from harmful pathogens and bacteria. Did you know that just over 60% of your immune system is located in your digestive system? This means that when your digestive tract is full of inflammation, as a result of increased cortisol levels from PTSD or C-PTSD, your immune function can be severely compromised.
Research studies have found a correlation between increased cortisol levels and an increase in allergy flare-ups. For example, an Ohio State University study found that individuals with PTSD were more likely to experience allergies. The founder of PTSD UK, Jacqui, personally experienced this, she developed a dairy allergy during the peak of her PTSD, “It was obviously something that I’d always had, but it wasn’t enough of an issue to show itself. During my worst times of PTSD I couldn’t have any dairy products without having an allergic reaction.”
As the extra cortisol from PTSD or C-PTSD surges through your bloodstream, it can dull your body’s defences and make you more susceptible to allergies and other sensitivities. It can also cause your skin to become more sensitive, leading to flare-ups of eczema or other skin issues, and potentially turn things like soaps and creams into irritants.
It’s important to remember that PTSD and C-PTSD are not just an emotional or psychological conditions, they can also have physical effects on the body. But if you’re experiencing any of the issues or symptoms noted on this page, it’s important to talk to your doctor or a mental health professional to ensure they can diagnose you correctly and rule out any other underlying conditions too.
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Treatments for PTSD
It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.