Identifying Psychological Trauma

Psychological trauma is far more prevalent in society than once thought. Most people tend to think of psychological trauma as PTSD, officially reserved for war veterans. However, those who have been in a car accident, environmental disaster, or some similar shocking event exhibit the same symptoms. What often gets overlooked are the small daily episodes; small agitations of daily life or  violence including domestic and verbal abuse. All of these  over the course of time lead to PTSD or other similar anxiety and stress disorders. Much like the muscular system presents repetitive work injuries from its daily grind, eventually it adds up to a much larger injury and perhaps even becomes incapacitating. The nervous system will become frayed or scarred.

Studies have shown that the brain can not tell the difference between a real and an imagined event. The neural network and chemicals associated with an experience are activated by even simply imagining it. Further, brain scans show that years after a stressful event, when the memory is recalled, the same parts of the brain light up as if the event were occurring in present time.

Lets take a look at the criteria for a traumatic event:

  • The event is perceived as a threat to the person’s physical survival.
  • Their coping capacity is overwhelmed, leaving them with a sense of powerlessness.
  • The event violates their sense of expectations.
  • It produces a sense of isolation, aloneness.

(Psychological Trauma, Church 2015)

So what is the result of exposure to such an intense event or many repeated smaller events? Over the course of time, people suffering with PTSD have brain wiring that is a little different. Under real or perceived threat, the connection between the rational brain and the emotional brain goes offline. The hippocampus and the amygdala may become overactive and unable to communicate with the cortex for an appropriate context for incoming information. This results in chronic stress response. The person may overreact to small or unimportant events or become enraged at little to no provocation. They may shudder at normal physical touch.

They often perceive the world as full of threats and have intrusive thoughts. The area of the brain associated with speech often goes offline under threat and they may not be able to articulate the intense emotions they are experiencing. PTSD or internalized trauma may also show up as physical pain and/or disease later in life. Without assistance, or a method to break the pattern, because of neuroplasticity (building of more neurons associated with the memory) the symptoms may worsen over time.

The good news is the brain is always pruning old unused neural connections as well as establishing new ones by neurogenesis. Neuroplasticity can work in our favor when needing to learn a new skill or in learning intentional techniques that help build new strong neural connections oriented toward a different state of being.

Under the right circumstances even a long consolidated memory may be susceptible to change. A thorough healing may be experienced after a vivid re-exposure and reframing of the experience. It is possible it may take several refrains for it to take permanently but often permanent results may be achieved.

My favorite techniques are Emotional Freedom Techniques ( also called EFT or Tapping), EMDR- using eye movements to turn the brain on and desensitize; meditation techniques to retrain your brain to enjoy new brain waves..and breath work to induce calm.. Group sessions are a great way to experience the value of these techniques while keeping your issue private.

These safe mind-body medicine techniques keep the person safely connected in their body and brings them back to present moment while recalling a trauma, which is key to healing. If done in the proper fashion, it often clears the pain completely and has permanent results.

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Dissociation- The Trauma Capsule

When a traumatic event occurs, it exceeds the capacity of a person or child’s ability to cope and something called a Trauma Capsule, is often created to help them cope. For self preservation, the trauma gets wrapped in a capsule, setting it aside safely. Dissociation occurs, bringing the individual to a place they can function. If it didn’t get set aside, the rest of their world wouldn’t be able to make sense, they would not be able to cope. When emotional abuse occurs, it particularly effects self worth and self esteem. It brings in emotions like internalized shame or resentment that make it difficult to trust one’s self.  This too is treated as a traumatic event.

If the traumatized person is a child and the abuser is their parent, it is confusing that the source of abuse and pain is also their source of comfort and nourishment. This is not only true with obvious abuse, but with cases of neglect as well. It forces the individual to put what is too difficult to cope with safely in a capsule tucked away in their psyche. Eventually they will exhibit symptoms somewhere on a spectrum of an anxiety or stress disorder , commonly called PTSD.

When a person is in fear of survival and they are overwhelmed, dissociation, a freeze response sets in. It occurs especially when there is no physical escape from the event. Dissociation as a  freeze response is a similar mechanism to playing possum. In reality, the possum is actually not playing, its body goes int to a frozen response as a survival mechanism; its heart rate slows, breathing slows etc… We do a similar thing, freeze, numb out, leave our body and or feel petrified in the face of inescapable fear.

Emotional Freedom Techniques, breath work and other energy medicine techniques provide a safe way to reconnect. It creates an avenue for body-mind connection while re-framing and releasing the charge around the encapsulated event. This connection is crucial for more permanent and thorough healing to occur. Often, a trauma may be released in a session or two with permanent results. For deep rooted trauma consisting of many events, more session work may be required however, getting to the root events will often alleviate some of the smaller events that are also psychologically associated.

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