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Don’t Do It! Why You Are Not YOU In a Trauma

Posted on April 13th, 2015

I’m still chuckling from a hilarious call with one of my Angels-in-Training.

We could not stop laughing about the things we have to do to keep our groups on track on the 21-day Emotional Freedom program.

Just the other day someone posted that they were ‘just settling into the garden chilling enjoying a beer’. I was on it immediately with a clear ‘NOOOO REMEMBER NO DRINKING DURING EMOTIONAL RELEASE PHASE’ and they said ‘oh yes, totally forgot’ and then promised to stick to the rules.

Only a week ago I stopped someone from ruining his financial negotiation as he was ranting about all kinds of ultimatums. I had to stop someone else from going on a £7000 credit card spree.

Basically, YOU are NOT YOU in a trauma.

Another Divorce Angel was telling me about intercepting her client minutes before she was about to cut up all her ex’s shirts and hang them up on the washing line!
Phew. Keeping everyone on track so they exit their relationship with grace and ensuring that they are safe and their transformation is guaranteed is both amusing and a core part of the job.

Why you are literally a different person during trauma

Whenever we go through tough traumatic times, our brains actually function differently. With heightened stress, the amount of adrenalin and cortisol in our body increases and cortisol suppresses our hippocampal function so we literally cannot think straight.
Basically, YOU are NOT YOU in a trauma. This is why people behave a bit weird when going through a divorce, bereavement, or they lost their job or trying to get out of an abusive relationship or they had an accident; they cannot help it. They literally have a touch of what we call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)…

Symptoms of PTSD

Re – experience symptoms

  • Upsetting memories come into your mind when you don’t want them to (images, feelings, sensations, sounds, tastes, or smells)
  • Intense memories where it feels as though the trauma is happening to you again. You may lose touch with your surroundings)
  • Nightmares of the traumatic event, or dreams with a threatening theme.
  • Feeling physically and emotionally upset whenever you are reminded of the trauma

Avoidance symptoms

  • Staying away from reminders of the event
  • Trying not to think or talk about what happened
  • Feeling disconnected or ‘numb’, like you have no feelings

Hyper – arousal

  • Constantly looking out for danger and being more easily startled
  • Problems sleeping
  • Problems concentrating or problem with memory
  • Feeling angry and frightened

Other common reactions to trauma

  • Feeling depressed, anxious, or irritable
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Feeling of guilt, self – blame, shame, or self – criticism

The threat system

What is the threat system?

The most important task for all living thing is survival. Over millions of years, all species have evolved ways of quickly detecting and responding to threats, increasing their chance of survival. Human brains have also evolved to detect threat and we have a built – in threat detection system.

The Amygdala

The amygdala is the brain’s ‘alarm system’. It works to keep us safe by constantly being on the lookout for threat. A body – wide alarm system is set off if a threat is identified. The amygdala is very sensitive and lives by the rule ‘better safe than sorry’, so as soon as sign of danger are sensed it immediately kicks into action and prepares the body/mind to defend itself. It also records information from our senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste) about any dangerous situation. It all happens so quickly and automatically that sometime the amygdala has set off the alarm before we are even consciously aware of what is happening.

For example, if we are in a forest and see something move on the ground we might feel scared and quickly step back, before we realize that it is a harmless bird. This reaction is the amygdala keeping us safe and acting quickly, before the ‘thinking’ part of the brain identified the movement as something harmless.

What happens when the threat system is activated?

The main purpose of the threat system is self – protection. Our survival instincts tend to make us do one of four things: fight, flight (run away), freeze, or appease (try to calm down the threat). When the threat system is activated a hormone called adrenaline is released into the bloodstream.

The adrenaline flows round our bodies very quickly, getting different body streams ready to quickly respond to the threat. The adrenaline increases heart rate so that there is more blood and oxygen going to our muscles. The adrenaline makes our muscles tense, making them ready to fight or to run away.

The adrenaline speeds up our thoughts, so we can make quick (potentially lifesaving) decisions. All of these changes can affect how we are feeling. The diagram below shows some of the effects activations of the threat system can have.

Remember that when we feel under threat it is common to act automatically. We tend to act first and think later, and may behave in a way that we would not have if we were feeling safe or calm. We have very little, if any, control over these instinctual reactions and we rarely get to choose which ones we employ when we feel scared. Common instinctive reactions include:

  • FIGHT
  • FLIGHT
  • FREEZE
  • APPEASE

These are all sensible and age – old ways of dealing with danger.

  • Fight = fight a danger off
  • Flight = run away from danger
  • Freeze = stay still and the danger might go away
  • Appease = bargain to try and make the danger spare us

The slow, deliberate, rational, ‘thinking’ part of the brain often takes a back seat when we rely on our basic survival instincts. This is very important to keep in mind as we can often blame ourselves for the way we may have reacted during the traumatic event and wish that we had done or said something different. However, we probably just reacted automatically to protect ourselves in the best way we could at the moment.

How does all of this relate to PTSD?

Our brain (and particular our amygdala) doesn’t care and can’t distinguish whether a trauma is happening now in the present, or whether we are remembering a past event in our minds – it reacts in the exactly the same way. The threat system is activated and the body reacts as if a real threat were occurring, it doesn’t realize that it is reacting to a memory. This is why memories of the trauma feel so fresh and why people often feel the exact same emotions they felt when the event was happening

The tricky thing for people who have experienced traumatic events is that the threat system often remains extra sensitive, and is always on the lookout for possible signs of danger. During the trauma, the amygdala was busy collecting sensory information so that it can detect any warning signs that further trauma might happen again later in life. This means that anything that reminds you (even vaguely) of the trauma can trigger the threat system and result in an emotional reaction. It’s common to see reminders everywhere, and some people feel that with their threat system triggered frequently they can’t escape from unpleasant feelings.

Do you recognize any of these reactions?

Normal Memories vs. Trauma Memories

‘Trauma’ memories are different from ‘normal’ memories. To understand more, we need to know about another bit of the brain, the hippocampus, and to learn about how our memories are formed.

The hippocampus

Do you remember the job of the amygdala? Its role was to detect threats and to set off an alarm in the body to prepare it for action. In contrast, the hippocampus collects and sifts through factual information, such as who, what, when and where. Like a librarian filing books away in a library, it records information about when and where the event happened, and files the memory away in the right place so that you can retrieve it easily later.

The hippocampus is like a librarian who files memories away in their proper place in a filing cabinet

The hippocampus works best when we are a bit emotional, but not too stressed. For example, we are more likely to remember happy or sad events compared to boring events: a bit of emotion tells the hippocampus that the event is worth remembering.

When the hippocampus and amygdala work together, a complete memory with sensory, emotional, and factual information is formed.

However, when we feel under threat, hormones like adrenaline are released. This perks up the amygdala and it becomes more active in order to do its job. In contrast, the hippocampus shuts down and becomes less effective at its job. This means that memories formed during these times of stress are filled with intense emotions and vivid sounds and images because the amygdala was so active. Because the hippocampus became inactive these memories sometimes lack precise details about where and when things happened, and in what order they occurred.

Normal memory

Think of a nice memory from your life, such as a fun day out. It is normal to be able to do certain things with this memory. If you were asked to tell someone about the memory, it will most likely be organized so you would start at the beginning, go through the main points, and finish the story at the end. You probably have all the words you need to describe the memory, and can choose what bits you talk about. This memory came into your mind because you were asked to think about a nice time, it did not just pop into your head from nowhere. In this sense ‘normal’ memories are mostly under our control, and we can choose when to think about them. After we talk or think about them we can ‘put them away’ and are not bothered by intrusive memories of the event for the rest of the day.

Importantly, when you think or talk about this normal memory you will know the event you are thinking about happened in the past and you do not feel as if you are re-living the moment all over again. You don’t feel the same intensity and level of emotion you did at the time. For example, a boy, Alex, may remember being excited the morning of his 21st birthday, but he would be unable to feel the same amount of excitement as he did on that day.

Lastly, our ‘normal’ memories and the meaning that we give to events can change and get updated when we receive new information. Taking Alex as an example, he felt extremely annoyed that his best friend did not attend his 21st birthday party. At the time, he thought that his friend didn’t care about him and felt angry every time that he thought of this. Later, though, Alex found out the reason his friend did not come was that he had to rush his mother to hospital as she had suddenly fallen ill. Because of this new information, Alex felt differently about what had happened and his memory and understanding of the event was updated to include this new piece of information. Because of this, Alex’s feelings towards his friend also changed and he no longer felt anger towards him.

Summary of normal memories

‘Normal’ memories are like files in a well-organized filing cabinet. They are under our control (we can open a drawer, pull out a file for a particular memory, then put it away and not think about it):

  • They are organized – they don’t just come in bits and bobs
  • They are just memories. We can talk about them without feeling overwhelmed with emotion
  • We can talk about them in a complete way: the memory is like a story with a beginning, middle and end
  • We know and feel as though the memory and the event happened in the past – like it has a ‘time tag’
  • We can change and update the memory when we learn different things
  • It contains both emotional and sensory information (collected by the amygdala) and factual information (collected by the hippocampus)

Trauma Memory

When we experience a traumatic event, the thinking part of the brain shuts down (including the hippocampus) and the threat system is activated (the amygdala). The amygdala triggers the release of adrenaline and our body reacts to protect itself. With the hippocampus less effective and the amygdala hyper-sensitive, the memories that are created during a trauma are flooded with highly emotional content and vivid sensory detail. Our ‘trauma’ memories are therefore different to our normal memories.

The first thing you may notice about trauma memories is that they are not under our control. Memories about the event may pop into your mind at any time ‘out of the blue’. Little things around us, like a noise, a sight, a smell, or a feeling can mean you think about the event even if you don’t want to. It is as if the files in an overstuffed and jumbled filing cabinet are spilling over. Even though we try and close the cabinet drawer, the files keep popping out.

The other thing you have probably noticed about your trauma memories is that they are often in bits and pieces rather than a whole story. People often say they remember a part of the traumatic event, hear a sound, or feel a certain sensation, rather than remembering a whole story with a beginning, middle and end. It is like all the papers in one file have not been stapled together and different pages are popping into your memory, or like isolated pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

When we remember bits of the traumatic event, we feel the same intensity of emotion as we did at the time of the trauma itself. This is one of the hardest things about trauma memories. Every time an image of a bad event came up, you felt the same intensity of fear as when the event happened. This is very distressing and frightening. This happens because the brain has not recognized that the event is over, and in the past. The trauma memory is filled only with information from the threat system and it lacks factual and contextual information. It is as though no new information that you have learnt since the event has been filed away with the rest of the memory. So, when you experience an intrusive memory you believe that it’s happening right now, even though you know rationally that you are safe now.

Summary of trauma memories

‘Trauma’ memories are like a messy and disorganized filling cabinet. The memory is in fragments so we may remember just a specific part, such as a smell or physical sensation, without remembering the rest of the event. We only remember the worst bits.

A little compassion please

Although there are many things which can be done to restore equilibrium, for some people they get stuck in this place and it’s a horrible place to be in – not being you or feeling like yourself.
Compassion for anyone experiencing a weird time is critical, so in a trauma it helps to have someone who keeps you from shaving your head, selling everything to find yourself in Bali, or leaving those bunny boiler voicemails. Remember to have compassion for yourself in those weird moments, and for anyone else who’s going through one!

When the auto-pilot takes over

During weird times, we are often on auto-pilot and not even conscious of how we behave, what we say or the Short Term Emotion Avoidance Tactics we adopt to cope. It’s only once you have processed everything that you are YOU again. Without strong guidance and rules in place, the processing and transformation just doesn’t get done. This is what makes trauma therapy SO epic. So if you’re struggling, find yourself an Angel who embraces #sheepdogging who will help you reclaim your life again.

It’s the best job in the world holding people to who they really are.

If you enjoyed this post, I’d be very grateful if you’d help it spread by emailing it to a friend, or sharing it on Twitter or Facebook.

With you in service
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