‘Trauma affects the entire organism… healing from ptsd means being able to terminate this continued stress mobilization and restoring the entire organism to safety’ ~ Bessel Van Dek Kolk
The body is designed for survival. The Adrenal Glands release stress hormones, the GI tract slows down to avoid collapse, the brain sends increased levels of oxygen to the larynx, heart and lungs so the body can run, or stand and fight.
Freezing means death; the amygdala at the centre of the brain, there for millions of years, tells us if we stay still, we will perish. Home is the place of safety, and a refuge from threat. But what happens when it is our homes which present the location of the threat?
If we don’t feel safe, or are displaced from our homes, the body goes into turmoil. There’s no relief from the threat, and stress hormones remain elevated, meaning there’s simply no rest.
When we are in trauma, memories of that ongoing threat becomes imprinted in our brains, yes. Yet speaking about a life-threatening event, or the experience of daily neglect places us right back in the centre of that fear.
Speaking about the events plunges us straight in the deep end of a pool of boiling water. We might only revisit the sensations the brain was triggered into, and hey presto; the brain begins retelling the body it’s under threat again. Memory gives way to experience.
The hippocampus in the limbic system of the brain reminds us of the events, scans the immediate environment for threats which may lead to similar events, and, finding them, past and present amalgamate, and the traumatised experience the bodily sensations of trauma without there being any immediate threat.
Loved ones are accused of plotting against them, facial expressions and looks are interpreted as menacing, sounds and lights on a busy road are perceived as the beginnings of a catastrophic event. And so it becomes a never-ending cycle. With seemingly no end in sight.
So how do we end the never-ending, terrifying, life debilitating cycle? Because we must end it. Otherwise, what is there? A life steeped in fear, where anyone and anything from outside of you could leave you paralysed with fear. And, what many people may not realise – because trauma and PTSD are still relatively unexplored in the field of psychology – is that most of us have residuals or the development of trauma… in our memories and bodies.
The problem with memory, especially in the cases of childhood abuse where the traumatic experiences were literally so fear-inducing the brain shuts down, is that they can be blotched out, or distorted. Memory can be suppressed, but it can open the doors to where trauma is stuck in our bodies, because targeting those fearful bodily sensations is actually the way out of trauma.
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Art by Alexandr Ivanov