• Trauma Reactions
Trauma Reactions

We become traumatised when our ability to respond to a perceived threat is in some way overwhelmed. The effects of unresolved trauma can be devastating and lead to gradual undermining of our self-esteem, self-confidence, feelings of well-being and connection to life. Our choices become limited as we avoid certain feelings, people, situations and places. This severely curtails our options leading to a reduction in freedom and independence and a loss of vitality.

Trauma & The Survival Mechanism

Many trauma reactions such as panic attacks, phobias, flashbacks and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be explained by the same underlying survival mechanism.  The brain has an emotional alarm system designed to keep us safe. When people suffer from trauma reactions it is because that system has gone into overdrive.

What happens is this. There is a small, structure in the brain, known as the amygdala (Greek for almond, which is its shape), that has access to our emotional memories and learned responses. It’s job is to act as our ‘security guard’ by matching new circumstances to what is already in the store and alerting  us to anything that previously represented a risk and might do so again. In the distant past,when this mechanism evolved, this might have been a movement or flash of colour that could have signified an approaching predator. The amygdala would then have triggered changes to help the body get ready to fight or flee the danger the so-called Fight or Flight Response,  pounding heart, racing pulse, quick, shallow breathing, etc.

Unfortunately, particularly when we have had experiences that were very frightening, the amygdala can ‘hang on’ to some of the sensory information that was around at that time-the sounds, smells & colours and file them away as meaning that our life is in danger. This process is unconscious so that, for instance, if we are attacked, we may not be aware that a dog is barking, in the distance, as this is happening. Nevertheless, our amygdala may file away the dog barking  as crucially important and a sign of life threatening danger. The next time a dog barks, where-ever we are and whatever we are doing, the amygdala may respond as if we are under attack and switch on our Fight or Flight Response. Suddenly we may find our heart pounding and be struggling to breath and have no idea why this is happening to us.

Now imagine this. A young woman, who has had a highly stressful day, is waiting in a long supermarket queue, worrying whether she’ll be out of the shop in time to catch the bus to school to collect her little girl. It is one pressure too many. The amygdala responds as if she is under threat and she starts to feel her heart pounding strangely and her breathing quickens. She becomes terrified that she is having a heart attack and that makes the symptoms escalate – her palms sweat; her chest feels as if it is bursting and she struggles to breathe. Soon she feels overwhelmed and may collapse or run out of the shop. The amygdala, fearful that this could happen again, files away the fact that there were bright lights and lots of people queuing when the ‘threat’ occurred. Then, when the woman is queuing in the post office the next day, the bright lights and queue may be sufficient for the over-vigilant amygdala to trigger another panic attack to deal with the new ‘threat’. Further information on the anxiety & panic attacks page.

Phobias start the same way. The amygdala makes associations with what was going on when a person first felt threatened, not all of which may be relevant. So, while it is understandable that someone who is attacked by a vicious dog may well develop a fear of dogs generally, it could equally be the case that someone develops a fear of broken glass because, on a previous occasion, when they had had a panic attack, there was broken glass lying near to where they collapsed. Agoraphobia develops when someone is too frightened of panic attacks even to leave the house.

In the case of PTSD, someone who was in the back seat of a car when a collision occurred may find it frightening to travel in the back seat again but there may be other, unconscious, connections with the accident too, such as the smell of petrol. So the person may experience seemingly inexplicable panic when filling up their own car with petrol.

Fortunately, there is an up-to-date psychological technique that can safely and effectively treat all types of trauma reactions quickly and easily.  This technique allows the brain to reprocess the sensory memories from its temporary store and re-file them in long-term memory. This means that these sensory memories no longer trigger debilitating and distressing symptoms in daily life  but instead become ordinary memories, safely confined to the past. This non-intrusive technique can help victims of sexual assault, beating or any kind of severe upset or humiliation, without causing undue distress. This can work swiftly and reliably in reducing distress and symptoms in even the most extreme of cases.

All therapists in the MindFully Well network are skilled at helping people to overcome all types of trauma reactions.

Contact any counsellor – psychotherapist in the MindFully Well network and they will be happy to help you.

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