It's not you, it's your nervous system
Updated: Feb 5
We have all been through some shit. That’s why so much of my work, blog posts and life’s journey are about this very thing. Our lives are the culmination of a beautiful and complex set of experiences, some easy, some not. Most of us have experienced some forms of trauma in our lives. Little T and Big T traumas are explained in my previous post. They are kinda self-explanatory. Big and small unsettling and scary events.
I wanted to go a bit more into how trauma manifests in our bodies.
First, let us start with a specific definition. This is one the seemed to be the most comprehensive: “Trauma is the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes their sense of self and their ability to feel a full range of emotions and experiences.”
OK my friends. What happens when we are experiencing trauma in real time? Let’s dive a bit deeper into our nervous systems. When we feel we are in danger, our brains do this really cool thing: our frontal cortex, our most mature and rational brain, shuts down. Why on earth would that happen?? So that the more primitive parts of our brains can mobilize us quickly to escape. There's no time for extensive analysis. We must get out of dodge quickly. Into the spotlight comes our reptilian brain and our emotional brain. Blood supply to organ systems unnecessary for dealing with danger are shut down, like digestion. Blood is then pumped to the places you will need to flee: lungs, heart, etc. We are in trauma, and are now perceiving through parts of the brain that experience only through physical sensations and heavy emotions. There are no words here; there is no time for that silliness. We fight or take flight. If we cannot escape or protect ourselves, we enter into the world freeze or collapse. You are aware of animals playing dead? We can do this too! Our vital signs slow down, pain relieving chemicals are pumped into our systems to prepare for injury. These wondrous survival skills we call fight, flight or collapse are all accomplished in the more primitive parts of our brains. When we feel safety has returned, our rational brain wakes up. “Good morning!” It says. “We all good?” “Grrrr” says our survival brains. “No thanks to you!”
Now the experience is in our rear view mirror. You may have had one big trauma, many small ones, or a combo of both. I will lay out an illustration here. You are minding our business in a grocery store, and all of a sudden you feel our heart start to race, or feel breathless, or sad or scared. There you are in the produce aisle, with an apple in your hand, feeling overwhelmed. You may think to yourself “What is wrong with me? Am I crazy?? Defective? Weak??”
When we experience extremely uncomfortable feelings and sensations or a hasty disconnect from reality in a relatively safe place, that is a traumatic memory. A memory?? YES. Since we experience trauma outside our rational brains (cuz remember, it takes a little siesta when we are in real danger) this recall is done without the autobiographical narrator of our lives- there will be no words or timeline attached to this memory. Traumatic memories are instead recalled from our somatic or emotional brain. That part of the brain can only sense through physical or emotional sensations. Maybe there will be a few words that come to you, rudimentary & fragmented.
So let’s say you were 10 years old, and were walking along the road, eating an apple and a car swerved up on the sidewalk and hit you. You were in the hospital for months, rehab for longer. Cut to your healed self. You pick up an apple in the store and boom! You are in a full-blown panic. Because there is no timeline or narrative in your more primitive parts of the brain, picking up the apple triggers a scary memory. But this memory isn’t like you recalling apple picking in your yellow overalls when you were a kid. These sensations feel present, overwhelming, and seemingly connected to nothing. “An apple??” You ask yourself. Because there is no timeline in this part of the brain, the memory is recalled like this: presently, overwhelmingly, attached to nothing specific and seemingly out of nowhere. THIS my friends is a traumatic memory. Your body is recalling a time when you were unsafe. You’re flown back in time so quickly you should have whiplash; it’s as if you clicked a switch on a time machine. Only you don’t know you are going back in time, because your rational brain isn’t there to put any of it in context (cuz it was asleep at the wheel when you were experiencing it.)
Does this make sense? Your nervous system has become mis-wired. Your alarm system has invisible trip wires everywhere, and begins to function on overtime. You feel danger in mundane situations. Your triggers will vary depending on the type of trauma you have experienced. But make no mistake. The malfunction resides within your own nervous system. It is not a character flaw or weakness. It’s actually your ability to survive that has brought you here, with this nervous system that you would now like to send back for a new model. You have survived. And now you want to live peacefully. There are many treatment options for you and your nervous system, all deriving from mindfulness practices. Re-connecting you to your vulnerable feelings and uncomfortable bodily sensations in a safe environment. Reconnecting you to your own body again so you can identify the alarm system and redirect it. Waking up the rational brain while you are experiencing stuff sent by the emotional brain- balancing this dynamic duo is the key. This post has gone on too long already so I will go into some treatment options in another post. But pick up The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk. It will start you in this journey back into yourselves, to begin to familiarize yourselves with your strong, survival skills and integrate them into your lovely, quieter daily lives.