Stress and trauma change our brains. Any human, when squeezed hard enough, experiences overwhelm. What’s interesting is how we respond to trauma. Any moment that is too overwhelming at the time lives within us until the are the resources to integrate it. Every person has experienced countless overwhelming events. We don’t need to remember or think our way through these events in order to integrate and heal. We can understand how we are wired by studying our response in the present moment.
Memory can get in the way
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. Our personalities and responses to life mostly emerge from the time before we could speak. Trauma repeats when we don’t have the tools or resources to integrate. Stories can also get stuck and if we give them too much power they can prevent us from moving forward.
Trauma and the Brain
The brain stem is the reptilian part and is where trauma lives. It deals with instinct, survival and metabolism. It doesn’t rationalize. Coming into the body and the senses will bypass the rational mind. This puts us in contact with our particular trauma reflex that likely developed when we were very young.
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 are help the brain find safety. (Porges 2011) Infants would never survive without social interactions with their caregiver. Social interaction is essential for the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the rest and digest response.
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, 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 instinct like fight, flight and discharge.
Freeze can mean a loss of contact with reality. It may be a pleasant or spacey feeling due to opioids 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).
The Repeat Response in Technical terms
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 is often what happens. It’s a polaroid that can’t understand details before setting the alarm system off. The hippocampus functions more like a sophisticated video recording. Trauma repeats when the hippocampus can’t update the incoming alarm.
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.
“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