re-balancing after trauma

If I rub on your arm right now several times over, you won’t react..but you might get annoyed after a while at the irritation of the feeling.

Now, imagine you have a burn or a healing scar in that area and then I start rubbing it. You would immediately pull your arm back, wince at the pain and be angry that I touched your wound.

– Tony Robbins

There is a stark difference between a brain that has been through a traumatic experience and one which has not.

In a normal brain, the interaction between the hippocampus and the amygdala is important for processing emotional memory.

The hippocampus controls the brain’s ability to recall episodic memories. Episodic memories are those formed through observing life’s events. The hippocampus also allows us to re-watch and re-frame events in our lives. This means when significant/traumatic life events occur, we will be able to deal with these effectively and compartmentalise them appropriately i.e. this memory won’t tarnish the expected outcome of future experiences.

When you see a little smoke rise from your hot frying pan, your hippocampus can recognise that it is a puff of smoke and won’t cause much harm if you open the windows and turn on the extractor fan. Your hippocampus acts as the soothing parent that sees all perspectives of a situation and knows not to panic. Previous memories have developed which result in an understanding that this puff of smoke won’t kill you. Your brain doesn’t release any stress hormones and the situation is dealt with effectively.

On the other hand, the amygdala senses this whiff of smoke and overreacts. It goes into overdrive, making the loudest noise to make you see the perceived threat and GET OUT. It will not relent. It can take over your biological functions to ensure that you are safe. Environmental stressors can be smells, feelings and sounds (but not limited to these – triggers can be anything external and internal – sometimes feeling certain emotions can be a trigger).

This amygdala response triggers the widely known but highly misunderstood fight or flight reaction. Adrenaline is released and our body pushes us to select one of four options: fight, flight, freeze or appease.

As much as we like to believe that we are in full and complete control of our behavioural responses to stressful situations, once we experience a traumatic event that makes the amygdala more sensitive to specific environmental stressors, and the hippocampus less able to calm us down, we are susceptible to losing control as our brain tries to keep us ‘safe’.

That is the problem with trauma.

Trauma is experiencing an attack so violent to your natural state of being, on a singular or repetitive basis, that it affects your behavioural response towards any such similar interactions in the future. Trauma creates a negative ripple in your original vibrational state that leaves you sensitive to subconscious triggers. You are no longer the same. Numerous studies have shown that the hippocampus is smaller in people who have experienced trauma and the amygdala shows higher levels of active nodes. Trauma, especially when experienced during the developmental years of a child’s brain, results in lasting changes to brain chemistry, the hippocampus and amygdala.

dealing-with-fear-and-anxiety-in-the-wake-of-traumatic-events-ottawastrong-4-638

Physical, emotional, sexual or spiritual abuse will shake you to your core. It will. This is not a debate. These wounds are not noticeable 95% of the time. Everyone has them, as the majority of us have experienced some form of abuse at one point or another of our lives. They are the reason he gets irrationally upset or angry when you walk away from him. They are reason you feel a deep sadness and depression when he rejects you. The reason why people drink to cope with the environmental triggers they don’t even realise are causing deep wounds without visible scars. Each time the scar is rubbed, as Tony Robbins mentioned…you pull back, pained, afraid and reminded of the horrible trauma you experienced. Pulling back to avoid the perceived inevitable pain.

It’s unconscious. Due to my experiences with childhood physical and emotional abuse, I was very sensitive to someone moving too quickly in my presence. I had a startle response that made me flinch without even registering it. It was unconscious. I lived with that for years until I recognised that my response was my amygdala at hyper activity, trying to protect me by getting me to flinch before the perceived threat made its hit. Does it sound trippy yet? It should. Because it is. We all do it. It’s the madness we live in but accept as a normal reality. I was hurt before so I should be afraid now. He used to hit me so I will be afraid if someone new raises their voice at me…it means they have the potential to hit me or hurt me like that person did. If I don’t triple check the doors at night something bad will happen. If I smell a certain smell I am reminded so intensely of a frightening experience. It’s trippy but unfortunately it’s normal when you have experienced trauma. The first step is ACCEPTANCE.

We all have maladaptive responses to dealing with stressful situations.

You will not know what your maladaptive responses are if you have taken them to be who you are. You now think you respond in this way because you have learned to protect yourself. You think this is your identity or part of your personality. Your over reactions are validated because not over reacting means being vulnerable to what happened before. You aren’t an angry person, or a fearful person. You aren’t distrusting of people. YOU aren’t any of these things. But because of your past experiences, you have learnt to deal with the world in this way to keep you safe.

Life doesn’t have to be this way.

I always seem to have some antidote or healing method. This time, I don’t…but what I do have is some advice on self-acceptance, self-love, self-care and learning to manage stressful situations. Entertain me:

There is no cure for trauma based maladaptive behavioural responses to stress.

There is no cure for trauma based maladaptive behavioural responses to stress.

There is no cure for trauma based maladaptive behavioural responses to stress.

I had to say it three times to make it start to stick. I have said it a thousand times to myself and it still has not stuck, but I am getting there. We are victims of our hopeful natures. What we have to do is learn to recognise the triggers and find new ways of responding.

Accept what has happened in the past. Write it down, write it ALL down, as painful as it may be to recollect the traumatic events. If writing is not your thing, find a trusted person and speak to them about it. I say that like it’s easy and it’s not. I remember the first time I spoke about my past experiences, it took me about an hour to get the words out and by the time I finished I was drenched in my tears (probably drenched the other person too), and I was a sniffling mess. But the more I talk about it, the easier to gets to accept it. Then the easier it gets to start to pull it apart and question the strength of these memories…and the easier it gets to compartmentalise the memories and realise that one person’s bad actions does not mean all people will treat me the same.

Learn to recognise your triggers. At first, because you have lived with this false identity for so long, you will find it hard to recognise when you are in a state of hyperactivity. As human beings, it’s perfectly normal to have and express emotions, but one thing I realised is that when triggered, if you feel very strong emotion, to the extent that you feel out of control, extremely fearful, depressed or upset, it most likely means you are in a state of hyperactivity.

What you are reacting to is not what is infront of you but to the negative association your brain has made with that event. Your amygdala is going haywire and the danger signals are firing like mad.

Sometimes this presents itself as extreme anxiety and panic attacks, which is an easier way to recognise that you are being triggered but extreme emotion is another. Recognise these and note them down.

“No one is perfect. We all have weaknesses and limitations. Some can’t be fixed. But, at least, a leader shouldn’t find herself blindsided…”
Assegid Habtewold, The 9 Cardinal Building Blocks: For Continued Success in Leadership

Never find yourself blind-sided, especially by subconscious behavioural responses. Recognise the triggers and change your perspective.

Even when things don’t go to plan and you find yourself reacting in similar ways or having a bad period, forgive yourself. As the famous adage goes, “Rome was not built in a day”, and healing is not an instant process. I know people who have been healing for years and are still discovering new triggers. Be kind to yourself during this process and be compassionate to those that you know are going through this process.

Thoughts?

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