What Happens with Trauma…..
When danger is perceived (from the environment or the worries in our minds) the body is wired to respond automatically in these ways:
The sympathetic nervous system goes into full alert sending stress hormones to the respiratory system, cardiovascular system, and muscles preparing us to either fight or flee. The neo-cortex (thinking part of the brain) shuts down, including Broca’s area for speech. This is because instinct is faster than thought and in a dangerous situation creating words and taking time to contemplate our choices is a luxury we cannot afford! This is also why often when we feel threatened it is hard to communicate both hearing information accurately as well as finding the right words to use.
When confronted with these situations all mammals, including humans, experience the fight-flight-freeze response. This is your body’s natural reaction to danger. It’s a type of stress response that helps you react to perceived threats, like an oncoming car or a dark alley.
The response instantly causes hormonal and physiological changes. These changes allow you to act quickly so you can protect yourself. It’s a survival instinct that our ancient ancestors biologically developed eons ago.
Specifically, fight-or-flight is an active defence response where you fight or flee. Your heart rate gets faster, which increases oxygen flow to your major muscles (you’re about to need them). Your pain perception drops (it’s going to hurt), and your hearing sharpens (which allows you to hear danger better). These changes help you act appropriately and rapidly.
Freezing is fight-or-flight on hold, where you further prepare to protect yourself. It’s also called reactive immobility or attentive immobility. It is not voluntary. It involves similar physiological changes, but instead, you stay completely still and get ready for the next move.
In addition endorphins are released to manage that anticipated pain and the mind dissociates from the body and from the experience. This means that the trauma has overwhelmed our resources to cope. The trauma does not have to be from physical violence or major disaster; it can be anything that causes the mind/body/spirit to be overwhelmed and shut down.
When all this happens the traumatic experience is encoded in implicit memory; this means that instead of “in words and story” the memory is laid down in the brain in fragmented pieces of images, thoughts, sounds, smells, physical sensations, and with highly charged emotions.
When the threat has ended all mammals, including humans, need to discharge the energy physically by shaking, pacing, running, or crying. Humans have the added task of moving the experience from implicit memory into explicit memory by adding words and creating a meaningful narrative/story that describes not only the experience, but also how we see ourselves-what we believe about life and ourselves after the event.
Implicit memory has no sense of time; this means that every time something reminds us of a traumatic incident it is not just remembered but is re-experienced. Stress hormones are released all over again. The sympathetic nervous system goes into “alarm mode” causing the heart to race, muscles to tense, and the neo-cortex to go “offline”. Instead of remembering the past, it feels like it is happening in the present. This is what defines a traumatic memory.
Traumatic memory is the result of a traumatic experience being blocked from moving out of implicit into explicit memory; this is especially likely if the freeze response occurred. The mind continues to attempt to heal by “knocking on the door” of the conscious verbal brain; however when that part of the brain “looks out the window” it sees a bunch of neural memory networks filled with upsetting information and so it barricades the door and hides instead of inviting them in!
Intrusion symptoms may include:
☢ Trauma flashbacks
☢ Uncomfortable feelings with no apparent source
☢ Emotional over-reactions
☢ Physical sensations that don’t make rational sense
☢ Anxiety about performance when you know you are prepared
☢ Negative self talk
☢ Slips of speech
☢ Self-sabotaging behaviours
These are often implicit memory “knocking”; avoidance symptoms like dissociation, self-destructive behaviours, isolating, and denial are the neo-cortex trying to ignore the “unwelcome visitors”.
It takes an enormous amount of psychological and physical energy to keep this door shut and guarded. EMDR works by helping implicit and explicit memory talk to one another while keeping the body relaxed. The traumatic incident(s) become narrative history instead of wordless terror without end.
Research shows writing/journaling also helps people heal; however for many trauma survivors this is often too painful to do. Trauma and grief both are most effectively resolved when the story is shared with at least one other person; we seem to be wired to need a supportive other to bear witness. Sadly, trauma often renders survivors unable to talk about their experience adding isolation and loneliness to their pain. After EM therapy, people report feeling both at peace with themselves and more connected to others.