Understanding stress and trauma:
To begin understanding stress or trauma we need to first touch on the three components that make up traumatic or overwhelming experiences.
These components are: fight, flight and freeze.
What is fight, flight and freeze?
Imagine finding yourself in a situation that feels threatening or rattling. This could be a bully approaching you in the school yard, a hooded man walking towards you in a dark alley or bumping into your boss in the company coffee room. Avoid judging if your fear is “rational” or not, what matters is if instinctually you feel threatened or unsafe. If you feel unsafe, your sympathetic nervous system- or survival system-jumps into gear and starts firing stress signals to help deal with the treat at hand. Hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are released into your bloodstream to help give you the needed energy and alertness to deal with the threat at hand. Likewise, blood rushes to your muscles and away from extremities to help you fight your way to safety or run away with the best chance of success.
Other elements of this sympathetic survival system are increased heart rate, dilation of the pupil, and limited digestion. Simply, your body moves into a state of hypervigilance and hyper-alertness to give you the best chance of survival. This is the fight or flight response. These responses are automatic and part of one’s autonomic nervous system, hard wired to help one survive the threats around them.
Now, let’s go back to the example of the hooded man walking towards you in the alley. Your body is flushed with hormones to protect itself and your nervous system is on high alert. Suddenly, the hooded man turns the corner and doesn’t end up approaching you at all. Few! That was close, thank goodness it’s over.
But is it really over?
In many cases, the effects of traumatic events or long term stressful situations don’t go away once the trigger is no longer present. Even after the threat is gone, one’s body and nervous system will stay charged, tense and alert and keep secreting unnecessary stress hormones. Until one can work with the language of the nervous system and help it move from a sympathetic aroused state to a parasympathetic rest state, the body will stay on high alert. Left on high alert, anxiety and hypervigilance can develop and the body begins to wear down. Quality of sleep diminishes and well as concentration and how safe one feels in the world and their body.
Without intervention, the nervous system turned on high alert for so long will begin to move into the other extreme to manage the intensity and shut down. This is known as the freeze response. When the body is full of stress and anxiety is like a car with the gas pedal pushed to the max. Left with no other choice the body “pushes the brake” and the individual experiences low energy and depressive symptoms. This creates the classic yo-yo effect of stressed and traumatized individuals. At time they are overly anxious and then at times apathetic. They have lost contact with the middle ground. Their nervous systems have lost the ability to regulate and maintain for them a feeling of balance and well being.
So what can be done?
A mind-body approach, or somatic approach, is ideal for working with such challenges. Using this approach your body can be safely guided to release the arousal charge that it is holding and normalcy can be re-found.
Take away points:
- Trauma and stress stem from fight or flight energy that has become frozen in a person’s body.
- Trapped fight or flight energy creates symptoms such as PTSD and hypervigilance as well as depression and shutdown.