Trauma occurs when a person experiences an overwhelming event (or events) that they perceive as life-threatening and which they are unable to prevent. In the face of such a threat, deeply instinctual parts of the brain are activated. Adrenaline floods the body, mobilizing it to fight or flee the situation. There are many instances, however, in which fight or flight is not possible. A car accident may happen so quickly that there is not time to adequately brake or swerve to avoid an impact. In the case of an assault, a person may find that they are unable to fight off their assailant, or they may instinctively know that it would be too dangerous to even try. When fight and flight are not viable options, the body will freeze, becoming immobilized (like a deer in the headlights) or will perhaps cry out for help or in protest. As a last resort, the body will “shut down” and submit to what is happening.
These instinctual responses to threatening situations operate outside the level of thought. They just happen. They are the truly amazing mechanisms by which we survive danger.
Traumatic experiences impact us on our levels of our being—physical, emotional, cognitive and spiritual. Following a trauma, our sense of ourselves, as well as the way we view others and the world around us, will likely change dramatically. Trauma often results in difficulty trusting our ability to keep ourselves safe and may also make it difficult to trust others. It is important to understand that traumatic experiences leave a deep physiological imprint, particularly on the nervous system. For instance, a trauma survivor may have difficulty accurately assessing their environment for signs of danger. They may live in a heightened state of vigilance, unable to relax, as if expecting danger at every turn. Their nervous system may react to harmless situations as if they were dangerous, and the opposite may also be true—actual signs of danger may be overlooked or minimized.
The good news is that it is possible to recover and heal from trauma. Therapy can be an invaluable support. It is important to find a therapist who is knowledgeable about trauma and holistically oriented. Such a person can help you to process all the ways a traumatic experience is affecting you, including physiological effects. Body-centered types of therapy, such as Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Somatic Experiencing and EMDR, can be especially helpful as they are designed to help your nervous system safely process and release traumatic activation and recalibrate itself, thus restoring your ability to feel at ease in the world and within your own skin.
Written by Elena Walker, MA, LPCC
Photo credit: pexels.com