Have you ever been in a car accident, or on the receiving end of a physical assault?
Perhaps you have been involved in a natural disaster such as flood, fire or earthquake.
Or have you been a witness (close bystander) of a serious event such as, someone being killed or hurt, or arriving on the scene as a ‘first responder’?
In the few days, weeks or months following the incident/s, did you experience non-normal responses such as:
- zoning out;
- blacking out;
- mind fog;
- inability to concentrate;
- panic reactions (eg fast breathing, palpitations, sweating, tremors);
- or emotional outbursts?
And did those closest to you, your family and friends, report later to you that you lost control of your current reality, that you seemed to be reliving flashbacks, in which the experience actually starts recurring?
If so, then you are one of millions (not just thousands, or hundreds of thousands) who may have been traumatised by such terrible events.
What Does it mean to be Traumatised?
Being traumatised means something more than just shocked and aggrieved and physically hurt.
When you are traumatised, your body and mind (better described as your psycho-physical self or body-mind) have somehow stored and embedded the event.
As implied above, you do not have to be a soldier, police officer or a bouncer to have suffered such major events. You can be traumatised as my brother was, by sliding off a roof, breaking your back, waking up in a hospital bed, and not being immediately briefed on the nature and extent of the physical injury and its implications.
By now most Australians have encountered the terms Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. But as someone who has worked in clinically-based psychology for 30 years I can tell you that PTSD is only the better known subcategory for what is in reality a family of psycho-physical illnesses, all involving “trauma” and its consequences, or after effects, on body and mind.
What is Trauma?
Before we can understand ’post traumatic stress’ we have to define what ‘trauma’ is.
Mental health professionals (ie psychologists, psychiatrists and allied health workers) have only recently defined it precisely (their definition though is much improved since 100 years ago when terms like Shell Shock, War Neurosis, Hysteria, or Weak Constitution, were in vogue and illustrated the lack of understanding).
Over recent decades, stress and trauma researchers discovered that the normal unstressed brain is constructed of an ‘orchestra’ of several finely naturally balanced systems:
- a front-of-brain attention system;
- an emotional limbic system;
- semantic vs episodic memory systems;
- association areas;
- motor-sensory areas, etc.
After 150 years of analysing and exploring the cerebral structure and function of those who have experienced trauma, it is now understood that traumatisation occurs when a life-or-limb event confronts a person (the Experiencer), and the Experiencer’s brain activates various subsystems.
When one is healthy and not stressed / traumatised, these systems naturally and repeatedly reset to calm or balanced states.
However, when a person is repeatedly stressed or acutely traumatised, these systems do not reset. They can disconnect from each other, go inactive, or can start to fire up at the wrong times.
How the Brain Reacts to Trauma
When traumatised, the Experiencer’s emotional brain centre (particularly the amygdala) gets activated and starts laying down virtual reality snapshots of the traumatising event. These snapshots in turn get stored into the hippocampus (memory structure).
In real terms, details of the events - the attacker’s face, the explosion, the pain, the fire that entrapped you – all get imprinted or laid down as if by video camcorder. As such, when replaying later these memories become frighteningly real. The Experiencer often starts re-experiencing and hence re-enacting their mental and bodily responses, in the absence of the original event. These are termed flashbacks. The Experiencer relives not only the event, but the emotional terror of the event; they become agitated, ready for “flight or fight.”
The phenomena of trauma-based flashbacks and subsequent re-enactments happens when the self-regulatory systems of the brain (mainly the prefrontal lobes) are no longer cabled into and thus no longer control the emotional alert centre (the amygdala) and the memory recorder (the hippocampus).
Once your amygdala goes on ‘red alert’, your pituitary, hypothalamus, and motor cortex areas kick into action. This in turn activates most of the sympathetic nervous system functions of your body including your adrenal glands, your breathing, your heart, your metabolism, your immune system, and your blood clotting system, among others. Basically your Flight-Fight-Flee system is switched on: you are now in Overdrive.
The problem occurs when the Flight-Fight subsystem switches remain stuck in the ‘on’ position or shut down altogether. Or, the switches randomly switch on or off. When ‘on’, the person starts re-experiencing and reliving the horror or the threat of the traumatic event, even in the present moment, many weeks, months or years after the actual event.
Are You Trapped by Trauma?
In a sense, the traumatised person becomes trapped in a Star Trek-style Virtual Reality Room (holodeck). They may get aggressive and feel like they have to scream and punch their way out of a strangle hold, even when they are now at a picnic with family.
At the other end of the trauma spectrum, the Experiencer may feel it’s best to run, hide or freeze. They may dash out of the auditorium sweating and panicky during a public lecture on the benefits of eating alkaline foods. The unfortunate side story is that these actions being so out of context, upsets those nearby and creates embarrassment or shame for the traumatised.
In an attempt to arrest the upsurge of a repeating horrific scene or painful event, it makes sense (even in virtual reality) for people to fight off their attackers, revert to panic mode, flee the scene, or collapse – or a mix of these.
And if they are not willing to seek help and/or no one is there to help, they often become one of the ‘walking dead’: alternatively self medicating with alcohol, medicines or drugs to control the feelings of disconnection and dread, the upwelling of threat imagery.
Continually reliving the trauma can lead the Experiencer down into more chronic co-morbidities such as dullness, confusion, depression, or co-occurring health issues (eg heart, vascular, lung, autoimmune conditions).
Traumatic events have been found to make long lasting imprints on the brain, body and social relationships of the Experiencer.
Much research has been done into treatment of trauma over the last 45 years – I encourage you to read my article “Meditation and Recovery from Trauma” to find out more about what has proven to be effective.
Author: Dr Terry Olesen, BA (Hons), M Psych, PhD Psych, MAPS.
For over 25 years, Brisbane Psychologist Dr Terry Olesen has been helping people via psychology-based counselling. He finds it particularly rewarding to work with people with a ‘life situation knot’: feeling stymied, distraught, sad or angry, while facing external challenges such as job loss, health issues or a death in the family. The topic of his doctoral research was work-life adjustment and mental health, which, in addition to his years of clinical practice, gives him the expertise to help people with trauma, anxiety and related difficulties.
To make an appointment with psychologist Dr Terry Olesen, try Online Booking – Loganholme, or call M1 Psychology (Loganholme) on (07) 3067 9129.
- Van der Kolk, B. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Viking Press, 2014.
- Kabat-Zinn, J. Mindfulness Meditation: Cultivating the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind (CD-rom). Simon & Schuster Audio. www.SimonSaysAudio.com
- Walton, Alice (contributing Writer), Forbes Magazine, 7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change The Brain. Section:Pharma and Healtcare, 9 Feb 2015.
- Fadel Zeidan; Katherine T Martucci; Robert A Kraft; John G McHaffie; Robert C Coghill. Neural correlates of mindfulness meditation-related anxiety relief. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 9, Issue 6, 1 June 2014, Pages 751–759, https://doi.org/10.109