Trauma is what we experience when we are faced with overwhelming negative experiences which our brains label intolerable. For example, child emotional, physical and sexual abuse or neglect, being in a road traffic accident, earthquake, being kidnapped, being tortured, being in a war situation our training has not prepared us for, witnessing any of the above.
During trauma the ‘fight or flight’ hormone adrenaline gets triggered in our brains and bodies. The mid-brain flies into action focusing on the threat and often the thinking part of our brain closes down as we go onto automatic. Other times, we seem to think very clearly and time seems to slow down. Of course, the natural things to do are to escape or to fight back. But when we cannot escape and find ourselves helpless, for whatever reason, this fight/flight reaction is less useful and the brain may switch into shut down mode, known as dissociation. Attention veers away for the threat and we may have out of body experiences, feel detached, emotionless and blank. We may even not feel pain, or become paralysed or unable to speak. All this may help to reduce the impact of the trauma as we are helpless to physically escape it.
Post Trauma Reactions
Acute Stress Reaction
For a short time after trauma (a few months, say), it is natural to experience stress reactions especially when reminded of the trauma in any way…for example if we hear the screech of car tyres and that was something we heard during our car accident. Also to feel avoidant of re-visiting the scene or to experience anything that reminds us of it. Other people feel compelled to talk about the traumatic experience at length, maybe as a way of mastering it.
After a few months, we can usually expect a natural recovery from a one-off or single-episode trauma. But sometimes this does not happen and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may be present. This shows itself in the big 4 groups of symptoms: avoidance, re-living, hypervigilance and negative thoughts. If PTSD is present you may need the help of a therapist.
PTSD is treated by working with the images and memories that remain of the trauma. Re-processing them so that they get stored in the normal parts of the brain that deal with our life story. It’s as if trauma memories have been stored in a ‘trauma’ filing cabinet, marked ‘do not touch’. This is not integrated with our normal memory stores which put everything into time and space order. By moving the storage around, we can resolve the PTSD symptoms so that the trauma memories no longer haunt us. They stop by popping up at unwanted moments and making us feel like it’s all happening again.
Surviving childhood abuse…Complex trauma
To understand the effects of being abused as a child, imagine the PTSD happening just as above, but overlaid on the developing brain and body and their vulnerabilities. In addition, if the abuse takes place at the hands of a parent or loved one, it becomes impossible to trust the very person who is responsible for your safety.
Yet a child must attach in order to develop and grow. At the same time, a child must avoid danger and protect themselves. So a conflict arises between two basic survival systems, attachment, and safety. Often the child resolves this by growing up with very flexible and somewhat separate aspects of themselves…self-states which can be very different in different circumstances. If dissociation (shutting down) has been present in childhood, it may be the preferred option in adulthood. Thus, the brain of a woman who was abused as a child may have learned that escape is impossible when under attack, and may shut down when in danger, leaving that woman vulnerable to further abuse, like being raped as an adult.
This kind of complex trauma can be treated like PTSD above, but before this can happen we must build trust, secure attachment and a stable sense of self. This can take some time and feel a bit like an emotional roller coaster, but your therapist can be trusted to understand the process and guide you expertly through it.
Our book will show you how to help yourself to Get Your Life Back. It takes you step by step, starting with identifying the problem. Then it helps you understand why you have the problem. You will learn mindfulness skills to begin training your brain. Then get clear about your values: what you really want in your life. Another chapter helps you understand how your problem works for you. Once you’ve done this there is a chapter showing you how to break the links in the chain of your problem behaviour. You can also contact us to work with a therapist skilled in this area by Skype, FaceTime etc., on the phone or face to face.