Do you feel like you are always waiting for the next bad thing to happen? Do you feel like you are always on guard and anxious? Does your heart feel like it is beating out of your chest? Why might you feel this way? After enduring trauma, the world is experienced with a different nervous system. This nervous system has an altered perception of risk and safety. With this nervous system, the body’s survival mechanism starts working against us.
Every second of every day, the brain is taking in sensory information from the outside world through the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. This process happens without conscious effort. Think of it like the TSA scanners at the airport; your brain is scanning everything that comes through. Is it dangerous, or is it safe? If the incoming information is perceived as a threat to survival, the amygdala (a part of the brain) signals the release of stress hormones, which increases the heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure. This prepares us, as human beings, to fight or run away from the danger. By either fighting or running away from what puts us in danger, we are able to end the threat. Once the danger has passed and we are safe, the body will return to its normal state. It will no longer secrete the stress hormones, thus allowing the heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure to return to normal. The nervous system is reset, and our bodies return to a state of equilibrium.
If the normal response is blocked (a person is unable to fight or run away), the brain keeps secreting stress hormones and sending off the alarms that the threat is imminent.
Such efforts to fight or run away are thwarted in incidences of rape, childhood physical/emotional/sexual abuse, war, automobile accidents, domestic violence, or when being held/strapped down (even in an effort to help or protect; i.e., medical or evacuation reasons). This is when trauma occurs.
Being able to move away from the threat and protect one’s self is the crucial marker in determining if the horrific event will leave a long-lasting wound. Otherwise, the body cannot return to its normal state of equilibrium. The individual now lives in a constant state of disequilibrium. The nervous system does not reset, and the body is constantly triggered to defend itself, feeling on guard, agitated, and aroused. Because of the trauma, the brain now misinterprets whether situations or people are safe or unsafe. The brain will continue to send signals to the body to escape a threat that no longer exists. In this state, it is difficult to control emotions and impulses.
To effectively cope with past trauma, it is crucial to give attention to both the mind and body. Research from brain scans have proven that during a flashback or dissociation, the parts of the brain that are responsible for mental processing of trauma are deactivated, thus resulting in the individual’s inability to think, focus, or orientate.
Healing and recovery from trauma requires attention to what is happening in the body, as well as the interpretations being made in the mind. Putting the memories into a narrative links the mind/body gap which helps eliminate the hyper arousal within the body and allows the traumatic event to stay in the past – knowing that it is over and you have survived.
Originally published in Healthy Cells Magazine
by Tonya L. Bassett, LCSW, CADC, CTT