It was the night. I was coming back home by car with my parents. As a little girl, I was sleeping on the back couch. A big wham and jolt woke me up. I was shocked because I didn’t know what had happened. My father got out of the car. I was crying and screaming because I thought he would die. But fortunately, it wasn’t anything serious. I even forgot about that event. But 24 years later, I was coming back home by bus. It was the night. I couldn’t breathe and wanted to get out of the bus immediately. Unconsciously I developed a pretty massive panic attack. It was a form of trauma response.
As human creatures, we often perceive some complicated emotions as unbearable and unwanted, so we try to avoid them. But every emotion, no matter how difficult – has an essential role in our lives. Our nervous system is doing everything for us to survive, and the role of the hard emotion is to protect us. When you are angry, it might mean that someone crossed your boundaries, and emotion signals that you have to react. We feel emotions in the body, not in the brain. Not working through emotional disturbances from the past might increase the temperature of current emotions because our bodies remember past traumas.
Our brains don’t like surprises. Every unexpected event for which our nervous system cannot be prepared may be perceived as traumatic. The brain wants to keep us alive, no matter at what cost. It doesn’t care about the quality of your life – the most important is that you survived. When it is trying to protect us, it might cut us from hurtful memories or even cut out feelings in some parts of our body. But then, suddenly, even after years, you still can experience the same or intensified emotions. Especially when your nervous system perceives the situation as the same danger you’ve experienced before because of some triggers (stimuli that affect an intense emotional state. In my case, it was traveling by night).
According to Sabina Sadecka, the other trauma definition can also be – too much, too soon, too little. Psychologists often talk about childhood trauma, so let’s use the same example. When you’re a child, you need someone to take care of you, but for whatever reason, your guardians will give you too little supervision in a long period – it can be traumatic. When you have to deal with unbearable events like war, natural disasters, or accidents, it might be overwhelming for your nervous system. That can be too much to deal with. For children – also too soon, when suddenly they have to take care of their family.
Now, a little bit of neuroscience. A general director of the brain is the prefrontal cortex. It estimates, plans, and solves problems. It connects inner and external stimuli and regulates impulses and emotions. Amygdala is a central fear system in our bodies. It collects non-verbal signals, especially those negative ones, and immediately sends an alarm to other brain parts. Pounding heart, shaking body, and will to run. Fear. Who likes that? Imagine standing at the cliff’s edge- automatic response will be adrenaline rush – like an alarm “you are in danger, you have to run.” It’s called fight or flight response — the tension of the muscles increases, as well as blood pressure and blood sugar level. Our body prepares the move to protect us. The main problem occurs when the tension becomes not regulated.
It makes no difference to our brain that the danger is not real; for instance, when you see a flood on the TV, or your negative thoughts influence you. The stress response happens unconsciously. When you decide about your action, the amygdala sends memories with the same emotional charge to the prefrontal cortex to ease the process. However, it often supports fast and emotional reactions. Hippocampus’s primary role is memory and the learning process. It stabilizes the functions of the amygdala. When the amygdala is sometimes irrational, the hippocampus says: “whoa, hold your horses, buddy, is it a real danger?” When the situation is perceived as safe, it stops the amygdala and stress reaction. When you see a snake – your amygdala sees danger, but your hippocampus can recognize that this species is not dangerous, so you don’t have to worry.
Hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex have to cooperate. Otherwise, we have a problem. When we cannot escape from a difficult situation, our brain goes to the overstimulation zone. It disorders our functions of logical thinking and the ability to speak. Overexcitement can be beneficial when it comes to danger, but when symptoms last for a long time, it may lead to numbness, exhaustion, and dissociation from the physical body. There’s a question- why do some people develop PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), but others do not? It depends on the resilience of the brain.
Resilience is a term borrowed from physics – resilient material can absorb energy because it is pliable. Still, it will release the energy after some time and return to its default form. Our brain also has such ability. Imagine a situation when someone will steal your wallet. It will affect a resilient person emotionally, but eventually, the emotions will cool down. Resilience is a set of skills necessary to protect our brain against overstimulation from stress. But no worries, even if you are not resilient from nature, you can learn it.
Neuroplasticity gives a chance to those who experienced trauma or are not resilient to stress. Neural connections can be changed to create new, more adaptable pathways to develop better coping mechanisms. When it comes to trauma, time doesn’t heal the wounds. In fact, the opposite. These are the things that have to be worked through therapy. But when you want to improve your resilience, you can start here – with scientifically tested self-help exercises.
Self-help exercises you can use in a situation of excessive stimulation:
- Progressive relaxation
- Breathing exercises – (f.e. diaphragmatic breathing)
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
- Thought field therapy
Podcast: Sabina Sadecka- Ładnie o traumie: About trauma and resilience
Glenn R. Schiraldi – The Resilience Workbook: Essential Skills to Recover from Stress, Trauma, and Adversity