By Maria Lebron, February 2020
Trauma occurs when we experience something deeply disturbing, causing us to feel overwhelmed and unable to cope. The trauma may be the result of a single event, a series of events, or from continued and prolonged trauma, such as childhood abuse. The circumstances causing the trauma are experienced as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening.
What Happens During A Traumatic Experience
Trauma affects both the mind and body. The amygdala, the area in the brain responsible for emotional responses, especially fear, becomes highly activated. The amygdala sends threat information to the hypothalamus, which is responsible for the release of stress hormones, and to the brain stem areas controlling the flight, fight, or freeze responses. Adrenaline and other hormones are released increasing the heart rate and pumping blood to the muscles. The body releases cortisol which lowers the responses in the body which aren’t needed to handle the threat. This puts one in an acute state of hyper-vigilance and alertness. The body’s response to the trauma is stored in the brain in order to know how to prepare for similar situations in the future.
The body’s stress response system will usually return to normal after the threat has passed. When the stressors are always present or when one can’t feel safe, the fight, fight, or freeze responses stay on. This long term exposure to stress hormones puts one at risk for anxiety, depression, digestive issues, heart disease, sleep disruptions, weight problems, and poor decision making.
Because of the increased amygdala activity, the somatic memories from the trauma are deeply felt and remembered, but since the thinking areas of the brain were not functioning as usual during the trauma, the result is there is an inability to form a full memory of the trauma. The traumatized person may only be able to remember fragments but not all the details of the traumatic circumstances. Some people may be able to recall a lot of detail up to a certain point but things get hazy or aren’t accessible because the mind became more focused on survival and less on what it didn’t consider life threatening.
If you heard Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony at the Brett Kavanaugh Senate hearing regarding his Supreme Court appointment, you may have noticed the times when Dr. Ford was able to recall some events in great detail, while others were not so clear. For example, she was able to recall many details of the assault itself but she was unable to remember how she got home that night. The fact that Dr. Ford was unable to remember certain details caused her to be attacked by some, implying she was lying. In fact, this is consistent with how traumatic events are stored in the brain.
When a traumatic event hasn’t been fully integrated and processed, the traumatized person may respond in other situations with the same level of intensity and perceived threat as the original trauma. When someone is triggered, their brain reacts as if the traumatic event is happening in the present, and the person may not be aware that they are reacting to something from the past.
Going back again to Dr. Ford’s testimony, she gave an example of how traumatic responses affect someone’s perceptions of fear in the present. Dr. Ford spoke about how when remodeling her home, she insisted that two separate front entrances be built in the home. This caused some conflict between her and her husband who couldn’t understand the need. Dr. Ford explained that it was only through therapy that she understood that it was related to the traumatic experience of feeling trapped and unable to escape during her attack. Dr. Ford wasn’t consciously aware that she remained fearful of not being able to escape years later, even in the safety of her home.
While some survivors experience intense stress responses during the trauma, others may only be able to describe themselves as in shock or numb. During traumatic events which cause extreme fear, the connection between the amygdala and hypothalamus can get disconnected, resulting in dissociated emotional memories. The intense emotions get split off and aren’t fully integrated and processed. When emotions, thoughts, and memories go unprocessed, they can manifest in emotional or physical symptoms, such as depression, flashbacks, anger or rage, racing thoughts, uncontrollable emotional outbursts, and body aches and pain.
The Mind-Body Connection
There are many effective treatments for trauma. When working with trauma, it’s important to focus on the somatic remembering since so much of the trauma or emotions are unable to be verbalized. A treatment focusing on the mind-body connection will focus on the person’s physical responses during the session. The therapist will ask the client what they’re experiencing in their body. The sensations experienced may be such things as rapid heart rate, sweating, tightness in the chest, tingling or numbness, dizziness, racing thoughts, and stomach pain. Experiencing the sensations related to the trauma in a safe way allows the client to process and integrate the trauma. The therapist helps the client to notice and integrate their somatic experiences, as well as teaching the client self-regulating strategies to deal with their stressors and responses.
In conjunction with therapy, it may be helpful for a person to participate in other treatments which focus on the body, such as breath work, yoga, massage, acupuncture, and expressive movement therapies. These treatments can help a person bring the body back into balance, get more in touch with their bodies, and relieve tension and tightness.