We commonly hear about extreme events such as fatal accidents, war, or terrorist attacks leading to post-traumatic stress. However, trauma expert, Bessel van der Kolk, states that negative experiences don’t have to be extreme to be traumatic.
Trauma is any experience that overwhelms our normal capacities to cope. Losing a home to a mortgage foreclosure, feeling humiliated in front of others, job loss, or divorce can also be traumatic and lead to post-traumatic stress. And how we deal with it can make all the difference in our healing process.
How Memory Works
Ever walk into a room, instantly feel uneasy, and not know why? This perplexing experience can be attributed to memory storage. We store memory in two parts of our brains. When we have an experience, what we sense (images, sounds, smells, touch) and how we feel are all stored in the emotional part of our brains, while the accompanying cognitions (language and context) are encoded in the sense-making part of our brains.
With everyday memories, our two memory systems communicate with each other easily and seamlessly. For instance, the smell of gingerbread triggers an emotional memory and we feel happy. Our thinking brain then provides context, reminding us that we loved eating gingerbread during the holidays at grandma’s house.
We have tens of thousands of experiences during our lifetimes and we are incapable of recalling all of them. But many of their sensory and emotional imprints remain. Emotional memories shape our perceptions, expectations, and reactions, sometimes without us even realizing it.
How Traumatic Memories Develop
When we feel overwhelmed, our brains react with stress hormones—adrenaline and cortisol—which energize us to protect ourselves. These brain chemicals actually block the thinking part of our brain to enable us to react quickly.
The downside is that our emotional memories (images, smells, physical sensations) don’t always integrate with our thinking brain memory (facts, language, events). So we become emotionally conditioned to feel fear when we are in triggering situations, even though we are consciously aware we are no longer in danger.
Hyper-alertness. We may try to forget about an overwhelming event, but our brains can go into overdrive trying to protect us from experiencing it again. Often we become hyper-sensitized to anything that resembles the stressful experience. Our bodies react as if the trauma is happening again. As a result, we may feel uneasiness or even fear in a situation for no apparent reason.
Avoidance. Because anxiety is highly unpleasant, we may avoid similar situations and miss opportunities to overcome our fears. But the more we avoid anxiety-provoking situations, the more entrenched our fears become. Ironically, in an attempt to avoid emotional pain, our suffering may increase. Unaddressed post-traumatic stress can lead to anxiety, depression, or PTSD.
What Makes a Difference in How We Process Trauma
Research shows we are less likely to experience post-traumatic stress if we receive validation or support about the traumatic event. Feeling safe enough to re-tell the story again and again actually changes our experience of it. Our brains integrate memories by making sense of them. So, if we share our traumatic experiences, we strengthen our resilience to them. If sharing the trauma with the important people in your life seems insurmountable, contact a professional trauma therapist.
Research has also shown that positive emotions combat post-traumatic stress. For example, studies have shown that individuals who thought of themselves as survivors instead of victims, who found positive meaning in the trauma, or who helped others with their healing process reported less suffering and greater recovery.
What to Do When Post-traumatic Stress Symptoms Arise
Post-traumatic stress manifests itself physically, emotionally, and cognitively: hyper-alertness, anxiety, sleep disturbance, intrusive memories, irritability, lack of concentration, depression, excessive numbing strategies (drinking, smoking, gambling, etc.), may result from unaddressed traumatic memories.
Here are steps you can take to address the symptoms:
Recognize that you are not ‘going crazy.’
Even though your emotional and physical reactions may not make sense to you.
Acknowledge that post-traumatic stress response is not your fault. Though it might happen to you at the worst possible times, don’t beat yourself up for the perplexing reactions. It is unpleasant (and sometimes downright scary) but it is your brain’s way of protecting you.
Accept your emotions and bodily sensations. If you begin to experience anxious sensations, don’t try to control or stop them; notice and accept them. Often the more we fight stress sensations, the worse they become. Anxious feelings come in waves; even when they are intense, they eventually subside.
Reassure yourself that you will get through this. Our brain reacts more resiliently if we believe we can handle a stressful situation.
Become self-aware. Begin by paying attention to what you are thinking and feeling, and how these are linked to specific bodily sensations. Understanding our inner experiences takes practice, so practice on a regular basis, especially when you feel stressed or anxious. Mindful meditation trains you how to do this.
Name it to tame it. When we articulate what we are going through, we are able to make sense of the impact our past experiences have on us now. Neuropsychiatrist, Dan Siegel, suggests just by telling someone or writing down these experiences, we diffuse the fear and anxiety they cause.
Engage your senses. Place your hand on your heart. Trauma author Lisa Graham writes, ‘Neural cells around the heart activate during stress. A warm hand on the chest, in the area of the heart centre, calms those neurons down again, often in less than a minute.’ If you know you are about to go into a stressful situation, place your hand on your heart and imagine you are in a safe place. Conjure feelings of warmth and well-being.
Hug someone. Similar to talking to someone, studies have shown ‘a 20-second full body hug releases oxytocin in the brain.’ Just like when you talk to someone, physically connecting with someone in a positive way triggers bursts of oxytocin (bonding and soothing neurochemicals) and makes us feel better.
Breathe deep. Deep belly breathing works because it activates the Parasympathetic Nervous System (responsible for our body’s rest and digest signals) and relieves anxious feelings. Practice deep breathing exercises before you enter into a stressful environment.
Practice yoga, dance, or mindful movement (Tai-chi or Chi gong). Van der Kolk suggests repetitive and skilled movement stimulates both the emotional and thinking parts of our brains. It heightens our body awareness and directly calms our arousal system through focus, breathing, chanting, and movement.
Get good at it so you can use it any time. We can strengthen our capacity monitor and control our bodily sensations with practices like mindfulness meditation and yoga. Van der Kolk, found that, ‘ten weeks of yoga practice markedly reduced the PTSD symptoms of patients who had failed to respond to any medication or to any other treatment’.
Though these steps can alleviate your post-traumatic stress symptoms, they don’t address the underlying traumatic memories. Trauma has a way of popping up again and again if not treated. If you feel overwhelmed by your traumatic memories, you can contact me or a therapist in your area. Most importantly, you don’t have to do it alone.
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