What is Psychological Trauma?
Psychological Trauma is a response to an emotional, psychological and/or a physical wound which has threatened the stability and safety of the whole body. Trauma shakes the physiology of the nervous system .
Human beings share the same brain responses of mammals in the wild when they are attacked by a predator. In fact, in all mammalian brains there is an instinctive reflex of fight, flight and freeze when confronted with danger.
Fight is an instinctive attempt to resist the attacker, to fight back for survival.
When this option is not possible because the predator is too big and strong the flight response gets activated by running away from the threat.
The nervous system uses the freeze response when fight or flight are not longer an option, and it is experienced in form of body numbness or paralysis.
Therefore, fight-flight -freeze are automatic instinctive reactions of all human brains in the attempt to survive the danger of their experience. It is very common, that the brain continues be in survival mode after the traumatic event is passed. This means that the whole body is in constant alert, becoming physiologically ready to flight, fight and freeze, because it has not received information that the trauma is an experience that belongs to the past. Consequently, the stress hormone Cortisol is in perpetual activation; too much level of cortisol experienced for prolonged periods of time can have detrimental consequences to the overall health of the body and mind.
How do I know if I am suffering the aftermaths of Trauma?
Following a traumatic event, the whole body tends to be overload with sensory information, therefore the world around is perceived as potentially dangerous. In fact, the brain is unable to make a distinction between a threat that has occurred in the past from a threat occurring in the present.
The characteristic of trauma is that the brain operates in survival mode in everyday life having a great impact on the individual quality of daily functioning at different levels.
Physical: Trauma impairs our ability to relax, disconnects us from our body sensations lowering the ability to look after our basic needs such as eating and sleeping. The stress hormone cortisol is constantly activated by the fight-flight-freeze response with potentially chronic consequences for our physical health.
Emotional: Trauma takes away from us the sense of control we have on ourselves and our life, disconnecting us from our emotions which are vital for our survival. Being detached from our own emotions can decrease our capacity to cope with difficult situations.
Mental: Trauma can decrease our concentration and focus. This can give rise to unhelpful thoughts, keeping us stuck to the same behavioural patterns that we not longer want to have in our life.
Spiritual: Trauma has detrimental effects on our self-esteem and on the sense of inner connections and connection with others and the world. Strong feeling of isolation, not belonging, detachment towards ourselves and others can affect the quality of our relationships.
Struggling with experiences of distressing flashbacks, unwanted images, night terror and repetitive nightmares along with a sense of constant inner fragmentation can all be symptoms of trauma.
What is Dissociation?
Dissociation is a normal response to overwhelming trauma. From time to time, everyone dissociates in forms of daydreaming, mind wandering or going in autopilot mode. Some research studies have demonstrated that everybody experience dissociation to a degree, ranging from mild to severe on a continuum. An example of mild dissociation occurs when there is a narrowing of attention that focus only on what is essential, as the mind “dissociates” unimportant information, like when reading a book or driving a car in the highway. These responses take place when there is a sense of safety in the environment and are not responses to a threat.
Chronic and problematic dissociation develops when there is a repeated perception of threat. During moments of dissociation, people disconnect from their surroundings and their own sensory experience. It can be manifested by spacing out, the mind going blank, a sense of the world not being real, watching the self from the outside, detachment from self or identity, out of body experience, and inner fragmentation.
Dissociation occurs when the brain stops to feel connected with the body. It is usually triggered when a person has experienced powerlessness in changing or stopping a traumatic incident. Dissociation works on a continuum and it provides temporary support in coping with feelings of helplessness; a person in dissociative state detaches from the situation in order to go through the traumatic experience. Dissociation can take place during a traumatic situation or later when thinking about it or being reminded about the trauma. Usually a person who is dissociating does not realise it is happening.
Can I ever recover from Trauma?
Recovery from trauma is a unique and delicate journey for everyone. Understanding the physiology of Trauma occurring in the body and mind during such extreme events can be a starting point towards the development of self-awareness which is an essential tools for reaching recovery.
Due to the fact that in the human brain the traumatic memories are stored separately from ordinary memories, there is no or little access to them, which is why for some people attempting to access those memories in the first place can be too overwhelming.
It is for this reason that Trauma Work needs to be paced, to gently increase a person’s unique window of tolerance rather than putting pressure on the whole-body system to recall traumatic memories that are unbearable. Due to the volatile effect of trauma, I put emphasis in supporting clients to discover or re-acquire an internal sense of safety by getting in touch with what makes them resilient.
After exploring suitable helpful grounding techniques and self-supporting strategies to deal with traumatic memories, clients may feel ready to work on specific traumatic memories to find their own narratives. I will continue to respect their own individual pace and to offer support in integrating those memories by applying grounding techniques which are vital for Trauma Work.
I passionately believe it is extremely important that clients are empowered in choosing how they want to recover from Trauma. After all healing is a powerful process which comes in different sizes or shapes and it is unique for everyone.