This is from our winter newsletter.
The effects of trauma can persist long after the provoking incident, both for the sufferer and their families. I've always wondered how the body "stores" memories of trauma as patients have had both emotional responses when part of their body releases.
So, I've been thinking how trauma is a whole-body event, and have started reading The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk. I also recently attended a seminar that touched on the issue. I never knew that humans and most large mammals respond to threats in this order:
1) When we are first threatened, we turn to social engagement, for example, calling out for help, talking to a loved one or seeking support from our friends. We signal our distress and get others to come to our aid with our facial expressions or change in tone of voice.
2) If no one comes to help, we go into primitive fight or flight - beat off our attacker or run away. Our sympathetic nervous system takes over, it raises our heartbeat, diverts resources from our digestive system to our muscles.
3) If all fails, we go into freeze or shutdown to conserve energy. When this dorsal vagal system is activated, our metabolism shuts down, our heart rate plunges and we can even stop breathing. We may disassociate from the moment and our bodies, the effects of which last beyond the traumatic event.
Trauma sufferers can be "stuck" in (2) or (3) and unable to go back to a normal functioning of their nervous system. In addition, researchers are discovering that trauma can change the firing in the brain permanently, so some midline and frontal sections don't turn on but the fear centre is always on red alert. This explains why when sufferers experience a flashback or trigger, they lose their sense of the present and feel the trauma happening again as if it was fresh.
There are many methods to help sufferers deal with trauma, one interesting idea is the body needs to complete the stress response in a safe environment. My personal experience with this came while receiving a treatment for lower back pain. I felt my leg tense up, and I immediately recalled being in the surf and bracing against a big wave. My body obviously remembered the strain (even though I forgot it) and needed to finish what it was doing at that time of the injury before my nervous system could reset.
Why do some people suffer from trauma more so than others? While we don't know for sure, our mindset and interpretation of the traumatic event seem to make a difference, as well as our resources. People with a sense of life's purpose, who have better physical capability and social support usually recover better.
If reading this has caused any distress, you can call Lifeline at 13 11 14.