78 – The Body’s Response to Trauma
written by Julie Long (Founder and Counsellor) on 12/08/21
Have you ever reacted to something random like a text, someone’s voice, or a feeling in your own body that gives you a headache or makes you anxious?
This podcast is meant to provide you with a better understanding of why some of these body sensations, emotions, and thoughts (that may seem to come out of nowhere) may be a result of something you experienced in the past which you thought was over and not a big deal, but your body and brain decided otherwise.
Trauma is something that feels unbearable. When people think of trauma, generally they assume events we refer to as big T traumas like going to war, being involved in a natural disaster, being a victim of a crime, etc. Yet trauma that is unbearable can also be referred to as a little t trauma which include negative life events that still have an unbearable impact on us today. Traumas can be single events, or they can be multiple traumas over a long period of time, including childhood abuse or neglect that affect someone’s sense of safety, sense of worth, and sense of control. Traumas also don’t necessarily have to happen to a person directly; they could witness a trauma and it can feel unbearable.
Our body has an innate ability to process psychological and physical injuries and move towards an ideal state of homeostasis or health. Just like our body knows how to heal a cut on our finger, our body knows how to heal an emotional cut.
But trauma disrupts this natural processing of information.
If someone has grown up in an environment where they didn’t have people that created a world where they felt safe, supported, and hopeful of navigating the world, then their capacity to process information is impacted. Or if someone has experienced a big T trauma during a stressful time in their life or maybe they are continually exposed to traumas, then their capacity to inherently process these events is halted. It’s like the brain that’s responsible for daily life says to the part of the brain responsible to protect us that it’s too much and I can’t listen to you and plugs its ears. So, the protective brain shoves it in the junk drawer to deal with it later. But it affects our capacity to deal with the here and now.
Let’s say someone who experienced trauma growing up may now be in a relationship where they feel safe and loved, have children they love and bring them joy, and have a career that feels fulfilling and brings meaning and confidence to their life. But if a certain fragment triggers a protective response, decades old software that hasn’t had access to all these new upgrades is still responding with old information. That information is stuck in time.
In order to get out of thus stuck point, we need to give our body a chance to look at the information so it can upgrade the software. When we think of our nervous system, when we’re in danger our sympathetic nervous system activates the body to respond to protect ourselves. It increases our heart rate, breathing, and muscle firing so we can run or fight. Or maybe our body has tried to do this many times and it hasn’t worked so it actively shuts down in order to protect itself and collapses. What our nervous system needs is connection and soothing to engage the vagal brake of our parasympathetic nervous system. But if someone has grown up in an environment where people aren’t safe, then connecting with others is hard. Or maybe they’ve always lived outside of their capacity, so they don’t know what it feels like to be calm. When people have lived in trauma all of their lives, their bodies actually disconnect from feeling the sensations in their body because the alarm bell is constantly going off. It’s like turning off the smoke detector in your house because it goes off at the slightest indication of smoke.
Our body will respond in a way to protect us from a threat whether it makes sense or not. So trauma is all in the eye of the beholder. It is what we perceive as threatening and it may not actually be in the here and now it may be in the past but the amygdala and hippocampus in the limbic brain haven’t received this memo. So they’re acting with outdated software.
This is where the judgement of others comes into play. If we see someone “overreacting” to a phone call, struggling with their mood or energy level, or having a panic attack when they think about driving to work or experiencing unbelievable pain in their body for no apparent reason, people may think there’s something wrong with them. But there isn’t something wrong with them. Their body is doing its job—it’s protecting them from the threat.
It’s unfortunate that there’s this judgment because we’ve learned so much about the brain and body and how it responds to trauma and there’s more options out there to heal—to upgrade that software so we’re living in the present rather than the past.
It may not make rational, cognitive sense to us but our brain isn’t using our neocortical thinking brain to make that decision, it’s automatically using our limbic brain to execute a survival response without us thinking.
So, when you hear someone saying, just snap out of it, it literally isn’t possible as our nervous system isn’t wired that way. We all know that some people judge others as being weak or use hurtful words if they go to therapy. There’s definitely still a stigma. But you know there are therapies that will help you get behind your body’s unhelpful automatic reactions, without having to talk about it so that you don’t have to live in distress.
With therapies like Brainspotting or EMDR, art therapy, somatic experiecing, craniosacral thearpy, music therapy, play therapy, IV therapy, even massage therapy, you might notice shifts like crying out of nowhere or hysterically laughing even though nothing happened to prompt that reaction. The reason this happens is that one of those fragments of trauma that was stored in the limbic brain’s junk drawer was just fired—meaning the neuron was activated and sent a message to start processing that event. Perhaps the person felt relaxed enough to start that reparative process. Maybe they feel connected with the therapist, maybe the activity they were doing helped them access a neural network that is adaptive and has the answer to the problem that was locked in the junk drawer. Our body has the natural ability to heal and reprocess those moments when we feel safe to let go, relax, and let the body do its thing.
Remember we’re here to help. At Safe Harbour we have different therapeutic modalities that help to create a safe comfortable space to give the body a chance to reprocess this traumatic information so you can live in the present.
Please feel free to reach out to us to learn more about how, visit our services page here.