How Trauma Operates In The Brain and Body
How trauma operates in the brain & body
The cortex is our thinking brain. We think things through and decide how to act.
85% of UK adults are experiencing stress (trauma) regularly. When this happens the cortex shuts down in the service of survival so that our instincts can take over in order to act to save our lives. The amygdala fires (stress centres of the brain) when we are threatened and our instincts take over. This is when our cortex, the executive brain, shuts down. It is often only after that happens that we feel afraid. Our instincts prime the fear. That is a sophisticated, adaptive function that humans have developed over centuries. When trauma is unresolved, our system is still prepared to respond to the trauma (stress). In the UK 32% of adults said they had experienced suicidal feelings as a result of stress. In 18-24 year olds this figure was 39%.
It might be harder to think clearly, especially when we are faced with repeated triggers such as, driving after a frightening car accident. Driving might become a frightening, overwhelming experience that feels like being on ‘red alert’. It is better to mistake a stick for a snake if we’ve had past experience with a threat. We are wired for survival.
Are we like this all the time or only when triggered?
In the UK 85% of adults are experiencing stress regularly.
Some people, with challenging lives (e.g. living with an alcoholic parent or narcissistic emotional abuse), live in dysregulation. We live life ‘walking on eggshells’. If you don’t notice, you can’t regulate, and it gets to a certain point when life is too difficult to reduce fearful arousal and the primitive responses take over most of the time.
Most of us have triggers that will send our arousal to extreme levels. Triggers remind us of past threats. For example, you might tense when you see a police car or a big dog, or hear a certain tone of voice. Or you might suddenly feel tense but don’t know why.
Trauma first and foremost effects the body. Thinking your way out does not work. Emotions shows up in our body, out of our awareness often showing up in stressful ways such as racing heart, tense muscles or tight chest.
When arousal starts to go up, if we can be mindful of those signals, we have an opportunity to regulate ourselves back to normal quickly by connecting with our bodies.
The integrated fields of Trauma Release Exercises & Integrated Energy Psychology which offer regulatory self-care interventions are very effective trauma informed care for self regulation.
These techniques combine touch, talk and nervous system (vagal tone) regulation which when used properly reduce arousal and quickly regulate the system again. When our system is regulated we open our window of tolerance and can move forward.
Other interventions that target the body through sound frequencies such as Safe and Sound Protocol SSP can also be very effective.
We need to be grounded and contained to think clearly. The rush to be normal after challenging events is a form of structural dissociation, which keeps us functioning. We go to work, we feed our families, we ‘get on with it’. However, it is not a grounded or present state of being.
After trauma we just want to get on with normal life, while another other part of us is still holding the trauma, even when it’s over. To be fully recovered and be present again with the world (and our feelings) we have to tend the wounds first.
However we cut ourselves off from our emotions in key ways in order to ‘get on with life’. In extreme events if we didn’t do this life would be intolerable. However we often find ways to justify staying disconnected and justify keeping a ‘stiff upper lip’.
Can we cope in emergencies?
- It is essential that we learn how to contain our extreme reactions. If we don’t we could lose our lives e.g. when driving.
- Every person has to find what works for them, there is not a one size fits all solution.
- We can learn regulation skills so that we don’t get lost in extreme reactions.
- If we can refocus mindful attention on the body it is often easier to let a negative thought go. We let the somatic resource effect the nervous system. For a traumatised person with a tight diaphragm a deep breath is hard, but can be developed.
- However, although it is simple, it is not speedy. A gentle pace is required to change our trigger responses.
How do I start?
We often expect useful solutions to be more sophisticated, but using the doorway of the body can be incredibly effective in trauma recovery.
You cannot go to a good place with your mind unless your body is in a regulated state.
Taking physical action in the moment, such as a hand on the chest, lengthening the spine, feeling the feet on the ground or containing with a self-hug can help.
Additionally learning to use somatic techniques such as EFT Tapping or TRE Shaking have helped thousands around the world.
Keep it simple. Do something to move the body. Any action we can take, mitigates the effect of trauma. Simple actions do SOMETHING to move us forward….and that is a start.
Bouncing ball, taking a walk, talking on the phone, kitchen disco, yoga, reaching out, volunteering taking some action to help others, protest responsibly, help a neighbour, write a blog post, asking what can I do today for myself?
As well as paying deep attention to friendship, music, art etc, the things that fulfil us.
The package of modalities that I teach which include SSP Safe and Sound Protocol, Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT Tapping), Heart Assisted Therapy (HAT) and Trauma Release Exercises (TRE) are extremely effective doorways that I have found to help reduce the acid sting of trauma and un-couple the mechanisms that hijack us.