We all experience traumatic events in our lives—the death of a loved one, an unexpected hospitalization, sexual or physical assault. Traumatic reactions are natural and serve a biological purpose. In the face of potential harm or death, our bodies respond automatically in certain ways with one goal: to keep us alive.
Our body is made up of a complex series of systems, responses, and synapses happening all the time to keep us functioning. In a normal state (called homeostasis), we can thank our autonomic nervous system for keeping things going on an unconscious level (think heart rate, digestive system, etc.). Yet, when we are faced with a potentially life-threatening situation, our sympathetic nervous system releases hormones meant to help us survive in the immediate moment.
Peter Levine, a well-known trauma expert, has studied the interaction between our body’s natural stress-free state and the introduction of a traumatic event. If everything is working the way it should, our bodies will go into survival mode when we are in danger.
When this happens, certain systems that are less important for surviving (like our digestive and reproductive systems), slow down, and other systems and chemicals that help us to escape immediate danger (adrenaline, blood sugar, blood pressure, etc.) increase.
Basically, our body is giving us the best possible chance to survive that it can. Our muscles receive extra energy to help us run faster and longer, and things that matter less in the moment, like cell production, are halted or slowed to preserve precious energy needed for escaping the immediate threat. This is the same reaction that allows for the common anecdote of the mother who is able to lift a car to save her trapped child.
When all things function as they should (and as Peter Levine points out, the way it works in the animal kingdom), once the threat is eliminated, the parasympathetic nervous system should bring our bodies back to a state of normal functioning with the stress response no longer activated.
Yet, Peter Levine’s work shows that humans, with our highly complex cognitive functioning, have the ability to override the body’s natural process for shedding the stress hormones and returning to homeostasis. We tend to think our way out of a return to normalcy by introducing things like blame, guilt, and isolation. Rather than letting ourselves naturally heal, we can actually get in our own way, so to speak, and perpetuate the traumatic response.
When we override the ability for things to happen as they should, we end up walking around in a traumatized state all the time. Our body is “stuck” in this state of stress, and we aren’t functioning at our best. Everything becomes a danger—another person walking down the road at night, a loud noise, an angry co-worker. In a normal state, we can reasonably determine that such things may not be a threat, but in a state of trauma, our bodies react with things like hypervigilance, aggression, and nightmares in an effort to keep us in a state of alert and keep us alive.
Continuing to function in such a state is not healthy. Our bodies are not meant to be so highly stressed all the time, and consequences like lost relationships, deteriorating health, and thoughts of self-harm or suicide can occur.
Additionally, without treating the trauma reactions, new traumatic situations will continue to compound and potentially cause further harm or struggles. This becomes apparent when a person faces a new trauma but suddenly starts reliving past traumas that were never resolved.
To heal from trauma, an expert trained in trauma therapy may be necessary. The goal should never be to relive the trauma, but rather to understand your reactions and allow yourself to experience the feelings surrounding the life-threatening event. This type of intervention is called “somatic experiencing.”
An important part of healing from trauma is learning to look at memories and past experiences differently and learning new, healthy ways to cope with severe stress and anxiety. This type of intervention is called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Regardless of the type of intervention used to treat traumatic responses and PTSD, the most important thing is to find a therapist who is trained to treat trauma and work with someone who you trust and can build a relationship with.
Despite the very scary and often disruptive experiences we all face through our lives, not all people develop PTSD. In fact, only around 20% of people exposed to trauma will develop the disorder. We need stress. It helps us function on a daily basis and keeps us alive when we come face-to-face with danger. Yet, we are also well equipped to heal. Even when thrown off course, there is a way to get back, and it may mean asking for help or allowing yourself to be vulnerable, but there are ways to get unstuck, and knowing what happens after trauma is the first step.
Melissa Porrey, MA, LPC, NCC is a clinical mental health counselor who works in the fields of grief and trauma, has worked with veterans and civilians, and currently works with trauma patients at a hospital. She also has a BA in journalism and has published articles in several magazines. She is looking to combine her two passions: people and words. Read more about Melissa at Linkedin. [EN | DE]
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