How our body is as important as our mind when talking about trauma

For tens of years, psychologists have solely focussed on the mind when addressing issues related to (childhood) trauma. Therapies are centred around our thought patterns, cognitive distortions, dysfunctional behaviours and emotions that are dysregulating. Cognitive behavioural therapy has the aim to identify and change patterns of thinking or behaviour that aren’t helpful to the individual. By changing these thought processes, it is assumed that the related feelings will go away. While this type of therapy has been proven to be very valuable and efficient for a lot of issues, I believe it falls short when dealing with trauma.

In my last blogpost (right here) I already touched upon the  idea that trauma doesn’t only affect our thinking and the cognitive associations we make, but truly impacts us to our core. It can literally change how our body works and reacts on the most basic levels. But how?

I’m sure you’re all at least slightly familiar with the concept of our flight/fight system. When we might be in danger, our body automatically prepares us for our survival. Have you ever been on a hike in a forest and got really spooked when you saw what you thought was a snake? A millisecond later you realize that it’s just a branch but you already moved backwards, your heart is racing and you might look red or pale.

Evolutionarily we’re designed for survival. Snakes are dangerous. Objects moving fast towards us are dangerous. Sudden loud noises are dangerous. Heights are dangerous. Without thinking, our body reacts when faced with a possible threat. This is what has kept us alive for so long and I’m definitely thankful that we have such an automatic system in place. It’s what makes us move really fast when someone is about to hit us and gives us the strength to do things (like lift a car) we would otherwise not be able to do.

When the danger isn’t there anymore (we either fought it, ran away from it or realized there wasn’t any danger to begin with), our system is supposed to calm itself down. Our heart rate returns to its normal pace, we can take a deep breath and our face changes back to its usual tone. We are able to think clearly again, which wasn’t possible when we were in our emergency state. Our flight and fight responses happen unconsciously, in the old parts of our brain. It inhibits the activity of our cortex areas, which are responsible for our conscious thinking and higher functioning. We need all the energy to go towards eliminating or evading the danger. Only when we’ve managed to do so, can we relax again.

So what goes wrong in the case of trauma?

In the majority of traumatic experiences, people feel like their automatic flight or fight responses aren’t an option. Maybe the person is trapped or isn’t strong enough physically. Maybe they are too young to fight back or run away. Maybe the trauma happens in a relation to someone we love, which we can’t easily escape from. Maybe the event doesn’t look like anything we’ve experienced before and we just can’t make sense of the situation.

There is a third common response related to our flight and fight system. When fleeing or fighting back aren’t viable options, we freeze. Our system shuts down. We might be unable to move, scream or even be present in the moment. It’s possible we dissociate. In a lot of cases, memories of the event are blurry.

 

When we aren’t able to calm back down, our body stays in the fight-flight-freeze response. This can happen when you’re subjected to chronic trauma like ongoing abuse, living in a war zone or being bullied for years on end. This can also happen when you don’t have ways to calm yourself down and there is no one present (physically and/or emotionally) to do this for you. Chronic (or complex) trauma occurs a lot with young children of unavailable parents. As a young kid, you’re counting on your caregivers to protect you and solace you when something bad happens. When parents are the cause of trauma, you can only imagine how severe the impact can be.

When we’re stuck in the flight-fight-freeze loop, our body can do two things. We can be highly aroused all the time, hypervigilant for any possible sign of danger. We keep on producing high levels of stress hormones, which on the long term have very damaging effects on the body. What helps us survive when we’re faced with actual danger, can lead to significant physical problems in the long run.

It’s also possible that the person dissociates or feels numb during and after a (chronic) traumatic event. We can feel detached from reality and the people around us. Feeling deeply and connecting with others and our own needs is hard. We’re not aware of the sensations in our body and aren’t thinking about the events that took place. While freezing can be very adaptive during the trauma, it’s not a constructive coping mechanism on the long term. While we might suppress what happened, our body always remembers. Sooner or later our body will retaliate and we’ll be faced with physical symptoms too.  Not to speak about the emotional problems that will undoubtedly arise.

Let’s get personal

Let me give you an example from my personal archive. At the age of 16, the relationship between my mom and her former boyfriend went south (which wasn’t the first time). We were still living in the same house and my bedroom was underneath the bedroom of my mom’s boyfriend. Let’s call him Frank. My mom wasn’t sleeping in the same room anymore. At night, Frank would make a lot of noise and burst into screaming bits from time to time. He would call my mom all kinds of names and say a lot of twisted things.

I would lie awake for hours, hypervigilant for every single noise. Ready to jump and run to my mom’s rescue if needed. I would barely sleep, even on nights that it was quiet. The next day I would go to school and act like everything was alright. I was studying, getting good grades but at the same time I felt like I wasn’t really there. Conversations were passing me by, I had a hard time concentrating and my friends later told me it felt like I wasn’t emotionally present. I didn’t think about how I felt and what impact the situation had on me. If I did, I don’t think I would’ve made it through the way I did. At the same time, I had more stomach aches and other physical complaints than ever before. At school I would dissociate from the events at home to get through the day. At home I would always be alert, ready to pounce or fight (while feeling paralyzed by fear).

While we managed to get away from the abuse when I turned 18, the effects of it didn’t end there. The relationship with me mom was difficult and after a few months I moved out. During my time at university and living on my own, I would have trouble sleeping. I was constantly aware of all the noises around me. I would keep myself busy, going to parties and acting like nothing could touch me. At the same time I would put such high standards for myself and felt the need to prove myself to everyone. I still had physical symptoms.  I always struggled with trusting people and opening up. It’s difficult to say where all of this originated, since I haven’t really known (emotional, physical and material) stability since I was a baby. In a later blogpost I will cover a variety of possible signs that indicate you might be dealing with unresolved trauma and build up energy related to it.

Knowing that our body plays an important role in trauma, is the first step in acknowledging what trauma really is and starting to deal with it. I definitely don’t have all the answers since I’m still on the journey of healing myself. I’m eager to share my own insights and experiences (as a psychologist and survivor of trauma) and take you along with my struggles and hopefully progress. Definitely scary but hey, nowhere near as scary as what I’ve already been through.

 

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