For so long many people have associated post traumatic stress disorder (complex trauma) with only MAJOR events, and while this seems true, it’s not true for every case. As a psychologist (a professional influence of mine) has put it, “trauma is any stress that can disrupt and affect physiology”. In other words anything that occurs that causes stress can have a detrimental effect upon one’s health and physical well-being.
Most all trauma activates the central nervous system. When this occurs, the autonomic nervous system activates it’s own self-correction, self-healing mechanisms. These self-protective methods are the body’s natural way of helping itself, but often cause symptoms and behaviors that aren’t considered ‘normal’ and deemed maladaptive. These methods are a reason for many behavioral diagnosis’s for children acting in ways that are often considered disruptive. Many of these ‘behaviors’ exhibited from both adults and children can be a direct result from trauma and emotional stressors.
Some responses that appear disruptive can look like over reaction, anger, outbursts, anxiety, fear, avoidance, control, and self-harming behaviors. This is not always the case, but often times it is. What does this mean? There are a lot of hurting people in need of healing who walk around trying to ‘function’ but are living with physical and psychological issues as a direct result of trauma.
A lot of these issues have no real correlation or explanation. Anxiety attacks and panic disorder for example, seem to happen out of the blue and come out of nowhere. When they occur they are terrifying thus causing more stress and fear. Though feeling a loss of control can be terrifying, it can be explained. Typically, due to stress, the body has moved into a sympathetic dominance. When this happens the muscles constrict, blood vessels constrict, blood pressure is raised, and insulin production is limited. There is a lot of science to substantiate these factors.
Examples of how trauma can affect the body:
Less severe examples of trauma might include: a person getting into a fender bender, and so overcome with emotion that he or she refuses to drive after that. Another person might be a light sleeper and sleep near a person who jolts and moves around a lot. The light sleeper lays awake for hours having difficulty getting back to sleep. That light sleeper’s sleep is continually disrupted thus causing daily exhaustion, dread of going to bed for fear of not being able to sleep. Stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin are released into the body and cause low functioning throughout the day, as well as fatigue.
In more severe cases such as death, rape, abuse, violence, loss, abandonment, etc, a person moves into fight, flight, or freeze responses. Thus, entering into a sympathetic dominance. Often times memories are stored in neuro-memory networks and the individual may not have language for his or her experiences yet having automatic responses due to those stored memories and experiences.
In psychotherapy we have focused so heavily upon “emotions” rather than physiology. In fact, our culture is so diagnosis based that it’s truly been a travesty for those seeking healing and help. Subsequent to trauma, or even apart from trauma, most people don’t pay attention to what they are experiencing inside of their bodies and the mental health field is just getting this science. Unfortunately, we have a society heavily medicated and not healed! Sometimes however, medication is necessary, but for many it is a detriment. It is important that trauma be examined from a more scientific and less psychological standpoint to help people see that their bodies are responding in normal ways considering their respective experiences.
Self regulation and calm are main goals in therapy for adults and children. A main emphasis in therapy is to help one get into a regulated / relaxed system rather than keeping him or her in sympathetic nervous system. Often replaying traumatic events in a narrative format can dysregulate individuals rather than helping them self-regulate. This is why EMDR is such a useful modality for treating trauma. In conclusion, stress hormones can have dire effects on the body and mind. Many people live with daily stress and dysregulation by merely the pressures of life. Here are some examples of how these stress hormones can have on the body:
- Reduces ability to stay focused
- Affects sleep patterns
- Increases anxiety (phobic thoughts)
- Holds and encodes the emotion memory
- Inhibits creativity
- Can erode nervous system proteins
- Reduces hippocampus function (the place in the brain where we attune, reason, and use logic-cognition)
- It can also affect the ability to create sequential memory.
Trauma work is not merely for first responders and abuse survivors, but for anyone who has had a stress so severe that it has affected his or her physiology. Hopefully, knowing this will demystify any stereotypes and assumptions about trauma work and who ‘qualifies’ to have this type of counseling. I meet people every day who tell me, “I’ve never been abused or faced anything scary in my life so I couldn’t have trauma”. Sure, there are varying degrees of trauma, but all deserve healing, wholeness and calm. Calm is certainly possible. As trauma informed clinicians we understand this and honor all who come to seek healing and wholeness.
If you would like to read more about the Center’s treatment for childhood trauma please click on the link.