We can at times be affected by a traumatic event for some considerable time afterwards. Sometimes we can experience what, on the surface, felt like a ‘simple’ incident, such as a minor car accident or brief episode of bullying, but we can feel anxious and preoccupied out of all proportion to the event for some time afterwards. Although rare, at other times we can experience significantly frightening and traumatic events that leave us feeling numb, lost, unable to cope with normal life and angry and irritable or anxious and panicky.
When we experience a frightening or alarming situation the amygdala part of our brain automatically warn us of the impending danger and activates the body’s stress response. Activation of this fear centre triggers a cascade of stress hormones that drive up blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen levels which all combine to prepare the body for ‘fight or flight’. This is a normal and healthy response that keeps us safe. We need this physiological response to quickly run from dangerous animals, steer our cars away from danger or run from an attack. This is an autonomic response, we have little control over it and it happens fast.
Afterwards the frontal lobes of our brain gradually start to assess the situation and make more conscious choices. We can then assess the situation more calmly and take conscious action. Think of the amygdala as the smoke detectors of the brain, sending an alarm signal, and the frontal lobes as the watchtower that give us a greater perspective and allow us to be in control and switch off the alarm signal. Activation of the frontal lobes is key in disarming the alarm system and calming our bodies.
However, there are times when something shocking happens to us which leaves the alarm response activated over a much longer timeframe. Trauma produces actual physiological changes, which leave the alarm signals on permanent alert, and stops the frontal lobes filtering accurate information from our surroundings. Trauma responses leave us on high alert, constantly alert to the need for ‘flight or fight’, even though we are now safe in reality.
This can stop us feeling alive and in the present. We can be left feeling hypervigilant to threat at the expense of enjoying our day-to-day lives. We can be left feeling numb, feeling like we’ve lost our real self, finding ourselves unable to cope with normal day-to-day activities, angry and irritable or anxious and panicky.
The good news is that for real healing to take place we now know that through counselling and other interventions we can retrain our body to realise that the danger has passed and to learn to live again in the present. We can put the past into our past and regain our present.