In Part 1 of my blog, I talked about how we define Trauma and the link between it and Post Traumatic Stress. Here, I explain the physical and psychological response to trauma and how we can recover.
HOW THE BRAIN PROCESSES TRAUMA
Following a Traumatic event/s, clients often present for therapy in a state of anxiety and stress, feeling unable to cope the way they normally would on a day to day basis. They will often say something like, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I should be able to manage. After all, there are people in far worse situations than mine. I know I’m being silly and I feel a failure for not being able cope.” They will often minimise the traumatic event and try to pass it off as almost an every day occurrence.
The reason we do this, is because we don’t understand how our brains react to trauma and feel that we should have been able to avoid or prevent this reaction somehow. The truth is that we can’t change the way our brains respond to a traumatic event in the moment, because it is all bound up with the fight or flight response, or hyperarousal. It is an automatic response outside of conscious thought. So when we are caught up in a traumatic event or series of events, our brains are constantly assessing the level of risk or danger to ourselves. If our brain assesses the risk as a threat to our survival, it takes steps to protect us, by mobilising our body for fight or flight.
FIGHT OR FLIGHT
Our heart starts to beat faster and our breathing becomes shallower and more rapid. We may notice our hands and feet feel sweaty and cold as blood supplies are diverted to the brain and muscles. Sugars and fats are converted for use as energy and sent to the muscles in our arms and legs. All our senses are on alert and mental activity increases for quick decision making. our mouth can feel dry as the flow of saliva decreases. Gut activity slows which can cause digestive issues such as nausea and sickness. All these responses are regulated by the sympathetic nervous system which activates the hormones, cortisol, adrenalin and noradrenalin.
The difference between a mildly stressful event and trauma is that in the case of normal stress, once the threat is over, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over and our body recovers and relaxes, because our brain knows we are safe. However, in the case of a severe or prolonged trauma, recovery doesn’t happen and the body and brain remain on high alert. Without realising it, we adapt to an environment of ongoing fear and threat.
We may then experience a range of symptoms following the traumatic event, which can be equally as distressing and overwhelming as the original event itself.
- feeling tearful all the time
- a constant feeling of anxiety
- feeling on edge, as if something awful is just about to happen
- difficulty sleeping
- irritability with others
- changes in appetite
- withdrawal from social contact
- flashbacks of the event itself
- worry about family members safety and wellbeing
- feeling detached from people around us
- feeling helpless and out of control
When we are in a constant state of anxiety and stress, it can feel as though we are stuck in this state for ever. However, once we start to recognise trauma, understand what is going on our mind and body and why, we can begin to take back control. With the appropriate support from a trauma-informed therapist, we can start to work through the process of healing and recovery. First of all, we need to be realistic about the time-frame. Expecting instant results will lead to disappointment and increased anxiety. The work involves re-educating the brain through conscious awareness of what’s going on in our bodies at any given moment and noticing our reactions and thoughts in the here and now. Physical self-awareness is essential in starting the process of learning how to feel safe again. We cannot recover until we become familiar and comfortable with the sensations in our bodies.
What I have just described above is the practice of Mindfulness. Using this tool, along side support and guidance from a therapist, the mind and body will heal given time. It’s also really important to take it slowly, monitor our feelings and responses and to work at a pace that is appropriate for us. Practising breathing exercises on a regular basis is a very useful mindfulness tool, which also helps us to regain control of our anxiety.
If the anxiety is so overwhelming, that you are unable to function from day to day, you need to talk to your GP. They may prescribe beta-blockers and or anti-depressants, alongside therapy, to help reduce the anxiety, so that you are at least able cope a little better.