When you think of the word “trauma,” what comes to mind?
Perhaps you visualize war veterans plagued by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Or families living in countries where suicide-bombers, threats and loss of basic freedoms are part of everyday life.
Maybe you imagine the one in three women that are physically or sexually abused in their lifetime (according to Family Violence Prevention Fund 2008).
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), trauma is “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.”
In addition, a trauma can extend to surgeries and childhood accidents—along with the grimmer cases of abuse, neglect and abandonment. Thus, pretty much everyone can suffer from a trauma. Even crazier, a forgotten and seemingly innocuous trauma can get reactivated by the simplest of triggers many years later.
In his book, “Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma,” Peter A Levine describes how an old trauma memory was activated when a man, driving his car with his two children in the backseat, swerved to miss an oncoming car in traffic. The incident activated a forgotten childhood trauma from when the man, as a young boy, had hit a tree while riding his bicycle. It set off a series of physiological responses that were identical to what occurred right after the bicycle accident.
Relationships are another common trigger of traumas associated with abandonment, grief and/or abuse. Many people can relate to the experience of heartbreak—especially if they were left, betrayed, and/or a loved one passed. The panic and pain that follows, often occurring in waves, sets up a physiological reaction that mimics the re-experiencing of a traumatic memory.
In order to find some coping and healing strategies for trauma, let’s first look at the physiological events taking place in a trauma and/or triggered traumatic memory.
First, the person experiences the trauma as a threat to life which activates a series of fight or flight responses in the limbic part of the brain. The person’s heart rate and blood pressure increase and digestion shuts down so that blood can be redirected to major muscle groups. Vocal chords get constricted to enable a high pitch while facial muscles contort to display fear or anger. Some muscles freeze and breathing either becomes shallow, allowing heightened listening abilities, or rapid. Pupils dilate and the body may evacuate any stored waste. The immune system also shuts down in order to increase attention toward the threat. All of these responses help the body prepare for a physical fight or to run. In addition the frontal lobe scans the memory for any similar situations to analyze for best responses.
While trauma can be complex based on the person’s history with the trauma, their health, and resilience levels among other factors—three debilitating things that can happen in a traumatic event include:
With any complex issue, there are a host of solutions that equal in complexity. This article is going to focus on one, and often missed, solution. The completion of the limbic system reaction. While awareness and knowledge can help create insight about how and why we do things, the impulses that do not get released in a traumatic event (or activated memory) remain in the body. This is where all the insight in the world can make one feel crazy because they will still feel a somatic response to trauma. They may still obsess. They may even feel suicidal in worst cases. A traumatized person does not have to remain a victim of the emotional hijacking that takes places if they can release the stored trauma.
One way to release the stored trauma is to work with a highly trained professional that can assist you in slowly re-experiencing the situation until you can physically mimic the fight or flight bodily reactions that you weren’t able to express in the event (or in the immediate processing of it). A semi-hypnotic session can help in recalling the event if needed. The key is in slowly re-experiencing the traumatic event second by second and body sensation by body sensation—and starting over as many times as needed until the body can finally respond in a way that it couldn’t before.
This may take hundreds of times over a period of weeks or months, depending on the person. Or it could happen in one session where the person is able to fight back and punch a pillow or scream or run. The body is amazingly powerful and intuitive and it’s important that the person (not the therapist) guide the reaction. It should come viscerally and naturally. To put it in another way, the body already knows the healing dance and it’s for the person and the therapist to stay out of the way and allow the body to reveal the next steps until IT completes the dance—and releases the trauma.