How To Get Trauma Into Perspective
The recent terrorist atrocities around the world highlight how susceptible we are to shock and tragedy and how vulnerable we are to trauma.
There are many things that can traumatise us both emotionally and physically throughout our lives. These are either 'primary' (they happened to us) or 'vicarious' (they happen to someone else and we either witnessed it, or have seen media coverage, or we've been speaking about it with the victim).
When we are shocked and overwhelmed (by physical attacks, accidents, bullying or other forms of trauma) the part of our brain called the Amygdala (situated right in the centre of the brain) becomes over-aroused – like a dial that has been turned up too high and got stuck in that position.
This also happens as a result of childhood neglect and abuse, and it's often un-resolved and un-healed because the memories are weak, and we can't be clear about what did and didn't happen to us. However our bodies do remember and store our memories 'somatically' – causing tension and dis-ease.
As a result of our earlier traumatic experiences we are then much more likely to experience a wide spectrum of problems which come under the umbrella of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Prolonged Duration Stress Disorder. Particularly so in the face of a current trauma – when our already over-sensitised Amygdala gets rapidly re-triggered.
We are affected by 'vicarious' trauma too – which comes from seeing, hearing about and witnessing traumatic events for other people. These deeply affect us both psychologically and emotionally due to the presence of 'mirror neuron' cells in our brain; and the process of ' emotional contagion' - whereby we are swept along by the emotional wave around us.
This is especially problematic for emergency services staff, doctors, nurses, and counsellors dealing with victims of trauma, rape, abuse, torture, and even such atrocities as ritual and satanic abuse.
For such professionals it can be difficult to take it all in, keep their own inner balance and objectivity, and be able to respond as needed. All the more so if their own earlier unresolved (or unknown) traumatic memories are activated.
Hence the need for such workers to have cleared and soothed their own memories (as best they can), and to have ongoing support to offload and rebalance after their traumatic work.
The effects of trauma
Flashbacks – your mind is keeping you aware of the experience so that you don't repeat it.
Nightmares – your mind is trying to process and dilute the traumatic memory. If it is extremely severe, or from a pre-verbal stage (0-3 years), then even nightmares will be blocked.
Hyper-vigilance – your mind is on the lookout for anything similar happening again so that you can escape or fight back next time.
Body sensations and a wide range of psychosomatic ailments, such as aches and pains, rashes and blackouts.
Feeling spaced out, not really there, or like an alien in your own body. Again these have a protective function and so you should be thanking them for trying to tune-out the trauma. These states will of course become all the more troublesome if you're driving, working or when in conversation.
Anxiety and fear – again symptoms of an over-aroused emotional brain, which could then turn into depression from the knock on effects of emotional overwhelm in the brain.
Outbursts of rage – caused by high levels of the stress hormone Cortisol. The brain can become flooded with this and turn down its sensitivity – but this creates the likelihood of flashes of rage, often at something trivial.
What can you do if you are traumatised?
- Become aware of these symptoms and what they represent to you. Keep your emotional reactions to trauma in your conscious awareness - accept and thank them for trying to keep you safe from harm.
- If you have a partner of family around you then you will need to calmly explain all this to them, as well as giving them your assurance that you are working to get control back into your mind and brain.
- We need to find our own 'protective and nurturing inner parent' to self-soothe your terrified inner child, and to give them calm and clear assurances of safety and protection.
- Find a way to make your body-mind feel safe and protected – this happens particularly when you're being held and hugged. We need to hug ourselves and be hugged by others who really care about us. This primitive caring behaviour releases the 'feel-good' chemicals in the brain and body, especially the hormone called Oxytocin - which is great for calming us down and helping us to feel safe, bonded, and secure.
- Visualise calming down the Amygdala. Focus upon the middle of your brain, see a bright red dial there with the arrow pointing to the highest setting. With each slow outgoing breath move the dial back a notch until it is below half way. Do this visualisation several times a day until you notice yourself having a more stable inner calmness .
- When you feel more in control of your emotional reactivity ,then shift your focus to examining the facts (as much as you know of them). Don't dwell on the details, but simply observing them in an emotionally detached way. This shifts the focus from your emotional brain to your pre-frontal cortex which deals with thinking, making sense of things and planning ahead.
- Imagine the sequence of events being like a film that you rewind to a place prior to the event. Then imagine pressing a button to fast forward it all in black and white; then rewind again and fast forward in colour, and rewind. Repeat this until your mind is bored with the story and not aroused by it any longer.
There will always be traumatic events in life – but you do at least now know how to heal and rebalance yourself and not be thrown into panic, distress or psychological disarray.
Maxine Harley (MSc Psychotherapy) MIND HEALER & MENTOR
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