Do you get a fright easily? Do you feel like you are constantly on edge and have grown a pair of eyes at the back of your head? When people tap you on your shoulder, do you jump out of your skin? These are some of the physiological responses that people may experience following a traumatic event.
What is Trauma?
In the medical model, trauma would be considered an event in which the person’s life or bodily integrity is under threat, or an event in which a person witnesses the threat to another’s life or bodily integrity. In psychotherapy however, the definition of trauma is much broader. In my view trauma is any event in which the person felt threatened enough for the release of Adrenalin to occur. This can range from giving a speech in front of an audience, to going into an operating room for a small (or big) procedure, to being held at gunpoint. If the body reacts to an event by releasing Adrenalin then it is preparing the person to either fight, flight, or freeze because the body believes it is under threat.
Natural Response to Trauma
When a person feels threatened in any way, which can range from a threat to survival to the threat to social reputation, then the body tries to equip the person with mechanisms to maintain self-preservation. Peter Levine in his ground breaking book, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, explains that the body goes through a natural trauma cycle which is controlled by the primitive part of the brain. This cycle begins when the body senses a threat in its environment. Let’s take for instance an impala grazing grass in the Kruger National Park. The impala senses that something dangerous is in its environment, perhaps he heard the rattling of some grass, or smelt a foreign scent. The impala immediately lifts its head and orients itself towards the threat. This is called the orienting response. If at this stage the impala confirms that there is indeed a lioness stalking through the grass, then the impala’s body releases Adrenalin.
Adrenalin mobilizes all the energy in the body and directs it towards the organs that are essential for fight or flight. In the case of the impala, the energy will be directed the the animal’s muscles, lungs, and heart in order for the impala to run away as fast as it can from the lion. The chase is now on and the impala runs for its life away from the hungry lioness. All the energy in the impala’s muscles are now being utilized for this escape. The impala reaches the woodlands and the lion is now unable to catch the impala. The chase is over. The threat is over. The impala has successfully used all the resources supplied by its body to escape from the lioness. The impala goes back to grazing in the grasslands as if nothing has happened. The impala does not suffer from PTSD afterwards as it has completed a natural cycle of trauma and can carry on with life.
Incomplete Response to Trauma
When Adrenalin is released and the body goes into freeze mode then the energy in the cells is not used up. The cells go into freeze mode and the trauma cycle cannot complete itself. The cells are left with all this potential energy that was geared towards fighting or fleeing. For example, if a person was held at gun point then the safest option is to freeze in order to save their life- fighting or fleeing may very well get them shot. As much as the freezing reaction contributed to their survival, the body is left with an enormous amount of charged energy in the cells. Once the traumatic event is over the person is left in a perpetual state of heightened arousal because the natural trauma cycle was unable to complete itself by using up the mobilized energy in the cells.
Impact of an Incomplete trauma cycle on the Body
A person who was unable to fight or flee from a threatening situation, is often left feeling helpless after the traumatic event. At their core, they feel like the world is an unsafe place to be in. This feeling of being unsafe triggers more Adrenalin to be released which makes the person on high alert for any dangers in their environment. The brain is unable to discern that the feeling of being unsafe is actually coming from within the person, and not from the person’s environment. The brain thinks that the threat is coming from their surroundings and so it prepares the body by keeping it in an orienting response. The person feels on edge, jumpy, hyper vigilant, anxious and is startled easily. This is a similar state to that of the impala looking around for the lioness. When a person is looking around, a portion of the unused energy in the cells is directed towards the head, neck, and eye muscles. So looking over your shoulder every 10 minutes is also the body’s way of using up some the energy released in the original traumatic event.
Am I Going Mad?
A person who is in a state of hyper arousal to their environment may begin to think they are going mad. The natural cognitive inclination of human beings is to be able to explain why they do the things they do. A person who is constantly looking over their shoulder because they feel a there is danger around them, is unable to pinpoint the threat in their environment and is therefore unable to understand why they feel threatened. As you can imagine, this is a very unsettling feeling and one may feel like they are going mad!
Completing the Trauma Cycle
A person who is walking around in a heightened state of arousal will struggle to focus on any other incoming information as they are so busy looking around them for the reason they feel so uneasy and unsafe. This means that the person may struggle to focus on work; their relationships may deteriorate as they cannot be attentive when their partner’s are talking to them; they may be more prone to accidents as they struggle to concentrate and be present in their own bodies. As you can imagine, this takes a toll on the person’s life and their quality of life and relationships quickly deteriorates. It is really important for people in this state to seek professional help in order to complete the trauma cycle using the body’s own intelligence so that they can get back to calmly grazing in the serene surroundings of their grasslands, just like the impala.