We have all experienced some degree of trauma and it often underlies addiction. At the Kiloby Center and online, we work with people to heal trauma.
A life-threatening assault or a car accident may result in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). A form of developmental PTSD, also known as Complex PTSD, results from long term exposure to trauma in childhood. We may have been formally diagnosed or simply know for ourselves that something isn’t working right.
Exposure to sudden or short-term trauma results in a stress response. For many people, the state of being on red alert returns to baseline after a period of time. Trauma often sets the stage for growth, resilience and confidence in our ability to cope with challenging circumstances. People with a history of past trauma may have more severe symptoms that don’t as easily resolve with time. By understanding our neurobiological adaptive reactions we can see the advantage and purpose of them and this can help us develop strategies to heal and feel safer.
“Our body will react in a way most likely to keep us alive. Knowing this may help reduce shame around dysfunctional strategies we’ve used. I often see relief on people’s faces when I affirm what they are experiencing is a common and understandable mechanism of protection, not something wrong with them.” Dr Stephen Porges, trauma specialist.
Common responses to trauma include a high startle reflex or hyper arousal, obsessive scanning for danger, anxiety, depression, difficulty sleeping, sadness, anger, guilt, fear, flashbacks, confusion and feeling numb or immobilized. This simply means your system is now reacting in a certain way to threat or perceived threat. As frightening as it is to feel hijacked by the primitive brain, this response really is just part of the Fight/Flight/Freeze mechanism.
Neurobiology: what happens in the brain
(from a November 2014 talk by trauma expert Dr Bessel van der Kolk)
- The amygdala, the part of the primitive brain area that makes you afraid, becomes hyperactive and the threat perception system is enhanced. Traumatized people see danger where other people see manageable stuff. This is in the core perceptual, primitive part of the brain.
- The filtering system higher up in the brain that helps to decipher what is relevant right now is messed up. This leads to trouble focusing and difficulty fully engaging. The thalamus receives sensory input and, when in a very high state of arousal, breaks down into unintegrated images, sensations, thoughts, smells and sounds of the trauma. Trauma is about sounds and images that make you flash back. This happens because the thalamus can’t do its job.
- The self-sensing system, which runs through mid line structures of the brain and is devoted to your experience of yourself, is blunted. It is a defensive response. When you’re in a state of terror, you feel it in your body, in terms of heartache and gut wrenching feelings. The body feels bad and we often seek to escape through addictions and compulsions.
- The medial prefrontal self-experience part of the brain determines how reactive you are to your environment. The more trauma you have, the more reactive you are.
- Flashbacks: When people start reliving their trauma, much of their brain goes offline and they immediately get pulled back into the past. We may see images and experience physical sensations. Stress hormones get released and the body starts behaving again as if the trauma is happening right now. The timekeeping part of the brain that knows “that was then and this is now” tends to go offline.
- Dissociation can be helped when we learn to notice what triggers it. Develop awareness of the first thing you experience as it starts to happen so you can implement your strategies for staying present.
A healthy brain is integrated:
(from a November 2014 talk by trauma expert Dr Daniel Siegel, MD)
When we are not traumatized, the brain is integrated in creating a flexible, adaptive, and coherent flow that is energized and stable over time. That process spells the acronym FACES: Flexible, Adaptive, Coherent, Energized and Stable.
Trauma impairs integrative functioning in the brain. Brain functioning will become inflexible, maladaptive and incoherent. Instead of being energized, it could be depleted or excessively aroused – not functioning with an optimal amount of energy. In terms of stability, it can have a strange instability and may repeat patterns that are recurrently dysfunctional. From the outside it looks stable, but the “stability” is recurrent dysfunction.
Impact of trauma on social interaction:
- With early life trauma, the brain network that allows us to interact socially doesn’t develop fully. We often have difficulty making eye contact, trusting and getting close to others, which are keys to having a good quality of life.
- Trauma disrupts the connection between the brain and body. It impairs our ability to read social cues from facial expressions. We can’t tell if a situation is safe or not so we may over-protect.
- Connection with other people is essential to help regulate our system. We have a biological imperative to connect with other human beings.
- Trouble with interpersonal relationships is a result of self-protective emotional shutdown and is a subset of a larger human tendency to avoid painful experiences. Trauma shuts us off from being with other people.
Prosody is the modulation and tone of our voice and is not controlled consciously. We pick up on calm presence and feel safe or unsafe with someone based in part on prosody. Listening to someone calm relaxes us because it signals safety to our brain.
Especially with attachment trauma and repeated early life trauma, there can be intolerance to experiencing positive emotion. We may feel we don’t deserve them, or feel that the other shoe is going to drop and something awful is going to happen. Sometimes with the experience of positive emotion, suddenly, we are flooded with negative emotions.
People who have experienced trauma often have feelings of shame and a negative sense of self. Reconnecting (slowly) with positive experiences helps.
Post Traumatic Growth
Trauma often sets a stage for growth. The more severe the trauma, the greater the growth. We can teach about the conditions under which growth is most likely to happen. Substantial numbers of people experience intense depression and anxiety after trauma then grow and, over the long term, they are at a higher level of psychological functioning than before. More intense strengths lead to higher well-being. Dr Martin Seligman is a founder of the new field of Positive Psychology, a branch of psychology which focuses on the empirical study of such things as positive emotions, strengths-based character, and healthy institutions.
This is the first post in a series about understanding and healing trauma. For more information, go here.
by Lynn Fraser, a Living Inquiries Senior Facilitator Trainer who has experience with and expertise in the area of healing trauma and PTSD