Friday, April 19, 2013

The Key To Emotional Trauma: The Fight Or Flight Response

Imagine that you are approaching an icy, busy intersection. Oh no... even the perception of slipping and crashing is enough to signal the brain into action. Our brains are biologically wired to react instantaneously when we are threatened with danger. The Fight or Flight response readies the body for intense muscular effort, supported by all of the body's systems.
So what actually happens when the brain switches gears? Envision sitting in a roller coaster just about to take off. You begin to feel your heart pound, palms sweat, arms tingle, breathing becomes rapid and a feeling of electricity flows through your body. In reality you are actually experiencing the first in a series of biochemical reactions sponsored by the fight or flight brain center called the "Amygdala." The hormone that is actually released is called adrenaline. Your body is now ready to go into protect mode.
To support this emergency response system, the thinking center of our brain is taken offline. After all, you do not have time to think. Muscular action takes over and does what is necessary to protect you.
Now that your body has been bathed in adrenaline, what happens next? A new biochemical called "endorphins" is released. Unlike the energetic adrenaline, endorphins produce the "freeze response," a natural anesthetic that helps the body calm itself down. People report feeling in shock as if they don't know where they are or what truly happened.
So what is so wrong with this bio-chemical response? For most people exposed to trauma, with a little time and TLC, they will recover. Others for a variety of reasons, will develop residual symptoms and may over time, get worse.
For people suffering from trauma-related illness, it's as if the limbic system, the home of the amygdala, begins to short-circuit. Every aspect of the original trauma, no matter how large or small, becomes highly charged. So whenever something in the person's environment reminds the brain of the trauma, the fight or flight response gets retriggered over and over again.
Now you can see how feelings of anxiety and at times, panic develop and you may not even know why. As this pattern continues and the symptoms intensify, people will begin to withdraw and feel isolated and alone.
Each event that connects the brain to a traumatic memory creates a retraumatizing event. You just "feel and feel" with no ability to think through what just happened. Shame, guilt and anger predominate and the trauma just does not get resolved. The person remains stuck in the "freeze response stage" never to re-emerge as the same person again.
Dissociation is another way that the brain copes with trauma. Dissociation trauma is described in psychology as a state in which people feel disconnected from their own senses, personal history or from their basic sense of self. This is why so often people do not recognize that their present state may be related to trauma experienced in earlier life. They may go a lifetime making decisions that are driven by reaction to past experience rather than on the best available data provided by the thinking mind.
Hopefully this article has provided interesting insight into how past experience can adversely affect quality of life and why the person may not even be aware of it. If you suspect or have some information suggesting that your past life experience was traumatic in some way, don't hesitate to seek assistance. Your past does not need to determine your future anymore.
Dr. Herbster has been a clinical psychologist for over 19 years and specializes in anxiety and trauma-related illnesses. As a psychologist and a trauma survivor as well, she knows how life changing these events can be. She believes that providing up-to-date information can assist trauma victims in turning a trauma into a triumph.