Last time we talked a little bit about what trauma is and how we can recognize its effects. Once I understood this CPTSD condition, and it explained a lot of what I had been suffering from, I had a basis from which to start research. There are people out there who have done work with this – books have been written, therapies have been developed and certain people have risen to the top of this field. So I began to look. One of the concepts that had emerged from this research is that when we are experiencing the trauma…when it first happens to us, we react with a “fight or flight” response. Actually, it is fight, flight, fawn or freeze. And very often we each respond in more than one way. I, for example, respond in both a flight and fawn way. Generally, the fight or flight response is an activating of your sympathetic nervous system. There is an increase in heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure. Pupils dilate, In my case, my mouth gets really dry. All these things are designed to help us deal with an actual threat. Our bodies are preparing to fight or flee. When the threat passes, it takes anywhere up to an hour for our system to reset.
With trauma, we have this reaction to threatening things in our environment – angry or violent parents, being abandoned, bullying, being shamed…any number of things can bring on this response. The problem here is that during this time, our prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that is rational and is responsible for goal setting, socially regulated behavior and the like – goes off line. During this period of time, it is the limbic system, the reptilian part of the brain that takes over. This is a much less rational place in our brains and is there to keep us safe from harm. The memories of what is happening now are stored there.
In actual situations that engender this response, like in animals in the wild who are actually threatened, when the threat is over, everything relaxes and the animal recovers. In the case of humans who live in an unstable, traumatic environment, there is rarely a clear cut way to know that the threat is over. So many people stay in some form of this response over long periods of time.
Later on in life, situations occur that remind our unconscious mind of a time when we were actually threatened. Our sympathetic nervous system activates, the rational part of our brain shuts down and we begin to react to today is if it were whatever yesterday we are reliving.
Stay tuned for more about CPTSD and trauma recovery