Trauma can leave you feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or possibly shut down and it is incredibly beneficial to develop an understanding of where these feelings and responses are coming from inside the body.
You may be familiar with the body's acute stress response: fight-or-flight.. If you are not familiar with the terms, fight-or-flight are features of the body's built in protection mechanism that surface in the presence of something that is terrifying, either mentally or physically. There is an additional response to perceived threat to safety: Immobilization/Freeze/Submit. This occurs when fight-or-flight do not restore safety and can appear in various forms such as a high alert stillness, freezing, or dissociation.
You can probably think of a time when you experienced the fight-or-flight response. In the face of something that may have been frightening; perhaps encountering a growling dog during a walk or preparing to give a big presentation at school or work, your heartbeat began beating much faster, you could feel yourself breathing faster, and your entire body became tense. Maybe you felt a lump in your throat, felt dizzy, tired, you could feel your hands trembling, or felt serious urgency to use the restroom. Essentially, the physical symptoms you experienced were indicating that your body was gearing up to either fight or flee the threat (real or perceived). Your brain, and more specifically your nervous system, sent the signals to your body, preparing you to fight or flee, making it more likely that you would survive the danger. Cool, huh? Let's take a minute to discuss where and what this whole nervous system thing is about before going deeper into trauma.
Your Nervous System 101
A basic way to describe the very intricate and delicate nervous system is to point out the two components of the nervous system. One that is conscious (e.g. actively thinking to move your fingers) and another that functions without awareness (e.g. regulating body temperature). The main actor in the human nervous system that functions without conscious awareness is the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS regulates organ functions such as heart rate, digestion and also responds to trauma or threat.
Also, the ANS either deploys energy (e.g. cortisol) or conserves energy through two primary systems: the sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system. Why is this important? Our autonomic nervous system plays a significant role in our emotional and physiological responses to stress (trauma included!). The sympathetic nervous system releases a stress chemical (cortisol) in the body (fight-or-flight). The parasympathetic nervous system pumps the breaks on the sympathetic nervous system and instead allows the body to shift towards relaxation, digestion, and recovery. When things are going well and you are feeling great, chances are your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are working in harmony and you would be less likely to have issues with digestion, sleep, and feeling "run down". This is where trauma comes back into the story...
Trauma interferes with the harmonious dance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. I should also point out that the parasympathetic nervous system is not only associated with recovery functions but is involved with dissociation and immobilization (freeze).
Dissociation is a biological protective mechanism deployed by the body when there is a perceived threat or danger. Dissociation separates you from conscious awareness particularly when frightening feelings or memories surface. I'm going to normalize dissociation here by saying we all do it or have done it at some point in our own lives. What does dissociation look like? Dissociation can appear in a variety of symptoms however, most frequently they may manifest as relatively mild sensations of fogginess, sleepiness, nauseous, or difficulty concentrating to feeling numb or cut off. In some of my more complex trauma cases, I have worked with clients who have reported experiences lapses of memory or feeling "lost in time".
When a trauma occurs and goes unanswered, a survival mechanism, either fight-or-flight will become conditioned into the nervous system. So if a traumatic event, death, abuse, accident, rejection, abandonment, chronic illness, sports injury, and so forth occurred in childhood, chances are a triggering event may produce anxiety and high arousal if there was a missing experience during and after the event. This I feel to be especially true if that person experienced a pain that was unanswered with love, connection, or attachment, particularly when he or she needed it most.
With just a slight shift in the lens of therapy, it's become apparent that a lot of the psychopathologies I treat as a therapist have at some point or another functioned as adaptive coping mechanisms for my clients, and that they were most likely developed as a response to a significant change (e.g. threat, loss, trauma, etc.). Whatever it is that they needed to do to allow him or her to thrive also became a symptom and limitation keeping him or her stuck. But you don't have to stay stuck if you don't want to! We will get to more on that in a future post ;) Stay tuned.
Amy Pope-Latham, LCSW is a clinical psychotherapist in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL.