They say, it is not the moments we expect that change our lives, but the unexpected ones who shake us to our core. And you remember that specific moment to details as it was played in slow motion. You perfectly recall the environment you were in, the clothes you were wearing, the smells that were surrounding you, maybe even the exact time. For some reason, the moment you truly really want to forget, is the one that you remember to a T.
So the journey to hell and back begins. And by the way, it’s a journey to hell and back over, and over, and over, and over again. As if the whole life after that moment is on a replay, and all you are left with are many painful sensations and emotions.
Understanding how the brain works during a traumatic event, can be beneficial on many levels. There is a rational reason for everything you have experienced in that moment.
The first impulse of information, before even higher levels of the brain can be aware of the threat, comes through the retina to the brain stem. Even before you hear the person saying something, your mind catches the body language, or maybe the threat is in front of you. There is a part of the brain stem that activates the flight or fight response called periaqueductal gray – PAG. In that moment the blood flow to muscles increases, the heart rate goes up, pupils dilate and blood pressure increases. You are now experiencing the fight or flight response, where you have noticed the threat and now you are getting ready for your reaction.
In those split seconds where the mind is processing this information, not every person response will be fight or flight. Some, might as well freeze or faint. For freeze or faint to happen, the PAG have to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. You would start experiencing how everything in your body freezes, your gaze, your breath, your muscles. This is the freezing state and it is not a cognitive choice. If the trauma is inescapable, the respiratory rate and heart rate would drop, muscles would become limp, some people might stop breathing and metabolism shuts down, where they become unaware of their surroundings when they faint.
Even though the threat might be long gone, after experiencing a trauma many clients live in a fear that it will happen again. There is a constant lingering feeling of waiting the other shoe to drop. A fear that it will happen again and not wanting to re-live a similar moment, nor to feel those emotions. At this point, that feeling is not only in the brain, but also in the body and the nervous system presenting as a physical pain. Muscles might be tense, jaw might be clenching during sleep, or sleep is impacted, and many other symptoms where the body is sending signals that trauma is not processed. It is important for the person who’ve experienced loss and/or trauma to be able to work through these emotions and sensations, and to be able to process the trauma that is lingering.
Read more about repressing and processing trauma in the upcoming blogs. In mean time, try be kind to every person you meet. You never know what burden they carry on their soul.