What is Trauma? What are Symptoms of PTSD? Is Healing Possible?
Updated: Oct 26, 2018
"The psychological distress symptoms of traumatized people simultaneously call attention to the existence of an unspeakable secret and deflect attention from it. This is most apparent in the way traumatized people alternate between feeling numb and reliving the event.”
We commonly think of some "thing" as being traumatic. But the truth is, trauma is not necessarily a particular event, and what is experienced as traumatic to one person may not be felt the same way to another. Trauma is the aftermath of our biologically-based, fear-activated survival system--it is the struggle of our brains' and bodies' abilities to process what happened.
When we perceive a threat to our safety, our brains are built to take action. Executive functioning, that is, paying attention, planning, organizing and problem solving, usually aren't going to help someone survive in a life-or-death situation. These kinds of skills take time. In these circumstances, we need speed and strength. So, the reasoning part of our brain--the Prefrontal Cortex--takes a back seat. At the same time, our fear center--the Amygdala--is switched on and takes control. It takes in fragmented sensory information, things you saw, heard, smelled, tasted, and is responsible for coordinating the release of life-saving hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine. With the help of the Amygdala, when there is a real threat, we have a much better chance of quickly running away or fighting back, ie. surviving.
When we find ourselves powerless in the face of such a threat, when we can't run away or fight back, we can freeze, numb or dissociate (leave our bodies). This is also a survival mechanism, but it can also re-organize our central nervous system, making it difficult to reconnect with ourselves.
Though our survival system helps to protect us, it can also leave us with the following "symptoms" that mental health specialists refer to as a post traumatic stress response:
feeling on edge, irritable
flashbacks, intrusive memories and/or dreams of the event
emotional/physical numbness or rigid avoidance of traumatic reminders
somatic complaints: digestive issues, tension in the body, etc.
There may also be cognitive changes, alterations in the way we think:
feeling unsafe in safe situations, or feeling safe in unsafe situations
having difficulty trusting others, or trusting too much
having difficulty trusting oneself
What You Should Know:
Remember that these symptoms are the direct result of your body's survival system: the temporary takeover of the fear response and the disconnection with your "reasoning" brain. Every time you experience a flashback, a memory, it is your body's way of attempting to process the fragments so that your brain, the organizer of your pre-frontal cortex can integrate the sensory material into a story that makes sense. So that it can be open to new experience and information.
Sometimes people may feel betrayed by their own body and mind, while experiencing symptoms like flashbacks and nightmares. However, these very symptoms are actually your body's way of attempting to heal itself!
Unfortunately, because these symptoms are experienced outside of one's control and often in isolation from others, they can trigger the stress response all over again, leaving the individual feeling traumatized again and again.
The Good News!
Creating Space is a safe space in which you can regain understanding, compassion and control of your body's survival response. Therapy is also a place where you can safely re-organize distressing memories into an integrated story--allowing your body to heal!