Trauma change our brains and can create a chronic stress response. When squeezed hard, any human will experience overwhelm. What’s interesting is how we uniquely respond to trauma. A moment that is overwhelming lives within us until there are resources to integrate it. Every person has had countless overwhelming moments. We don’t need to remember or think our way through these events in order to integrate them. We can understand how we are wired by studying our response in the present moment.
Story, Trauma & the Brain
Humans make meaning through story. There are many reasons to tell our story and this can be empowering. However it is not necessary for healing. Most early events never become part of conscious awareness and these are the most defining. Coming into the body puts us in contact with our particular trauma reflex that likely developed when we were very young.
Our personalities and responses to life emerge from when we were pre-verbal. This is what we want to get to know. If we can see our trauma response we can rewire it. Trauma repeats when we don’t have the tools or resources to do this. Stories can contribute to this by pressing the repeat button the video player & firing the same pathways over without any resolution. Trauma lives in the brain stem. This reptilian part deals with instinct, survival and metabolism. It doesn’t rationalize or tell stories.
We can come into the body by orienting to our environment and surroundings. Opening the senses activates our instinctive, reptilian brain. The vagus nerve engages our senses. Social interactions help the brain find safety. Infants would never survive without the social interactions they have with a caregiver. Social interaction is essential for the parasympathetic nervous system which signals safety.
The sympathetic nervous system gets activated in trauma. It’s meant to engage for a short time to help us survive an acute danger. Humans are unique because we override the normal discharge and recovery response that other animals readily use. Chronically high stress levels without discharge contributes to trauma repeating itself.
Flight, Fight or Freeze
Anxiety, anger or dissociation can go on for years after a traumatic event. Flight, fight and freeze are normal trauma responses. Martial arts are a great way to work with instincts like fight, flight and discharge. Freeze can mean a loss of contact with reality. It may be a pleasant or spacey feeling due to the opiod like neurochemicals that are released. You’ve likely experienced this sensation after an injury. Shock and post traumatic stress disorder can both present as a freeze response.
Being lost in trauma is due to dissociation or the freeze response. An inability to feel the body, or connect internally can result in depression or chronic pain. Mood and energy fluctuations happen when the nervous system is stuck not knowing whether to flee (flight) or disappear (freeze). On meditation retreat, many people experience pain that dissolves after being with it for a period of time in a way that allows it to discharge. This is one way humans have learned to engage in rewiring. It is very effective.
The Limbic System
“Trauma shatters our world view. Rules of fairness and justice no longer seem to apply. Trauma can lead to a spiritual crisis or profound reevaluation of meaning.” Stephan Haines
The reptilian in us is always scanning for threat. The amygdala is part of the limbic system. It is the smoke detector of our nervous system. Over reacting to burnt toast can happen. It’s like a polaroid picture in our brain that doesn’t look at the details before setting the alarm bell. The hippocampus functions more like a sophisticated video recording that can see details. It is able to calm the brain if the threat isn’t real. Trauma repeats when the hippocampus can’t update the amygdala so the alarm just rings.
Tools to Self-Regulate
Go slow. Take small steps that prevent getting wound up. Tracking your heart rate, breathing, movements and emotions can help. Emotional outpouring isn’t as useful in working with trauma. A feeling of floating away is dissociation. It happens quickly and is seductive.
Go slow to avoid being overwhelmed or taken over. Find safety because brains love secure basis to explore from. Build resources and the support networks you have. Any sensations that feel good or positive memories you can build on are resources. Use details to expand the sensation.
Orient, Move, Ground
When you feel activated apply these tools.
1.Orient to your surroundings. Notice what’s around you. Make contact with another person. Social engagement is part of this.
2. Move means connect with your body. Expand. Trauma is usually stuck. Moving creates the opposite response.
3. Try saying, “I’m ok because I can feel my feet.” Notice your front and back or any sensations you can connect with.
Remember that shaking can reset the brain and the muscles. It discharge tension or wake up frozen parts.
Trauma is a primitive response that can get stuck in telling us we are in danger when the danger has passed. It’s difficult to live fully when we are stuck. Finding social support is part of the journey. Within each of us are ways to switch off the overactive, protective reflexes. These tools are part of our evolution.
The body is the way to reconnect. Reconnect with your body to regain your life. It’s a worthwhile journey to make.
Awakening the body rewires the brain. Allow the intense reactions to come down at their own pace. You can trust your body’s timing.
Being in a relaxed body with a brain that can respond easily equals health and happiness.