You might think trauma is in your head, in the metaphorical sense. It is actually in your body, in the literal sense.
Trauma is what happens when something scares you and you do not get over that fear. If you do not resolve or “defeat” it, you get into, and remain in, a sustained state of fight-or-flight, which is essentially the human panic response for survival.
Trauma is the experience of disconnecting from a fundamental feeling of safety. Unless you are able to reestablish that connection, a particularly destructive bias distorts your worldview: you become hypersensitive, which means that you will ascribe intent, overthink, overreact, become triggered by innocuous stimuli, personalize neutral situations, and remain in a mental “combat mode.”
After experiencing trauma, your brain will rewire itself temporarily to seek out the potential “threat” in anything, which makes it very difficult to both move on from the initial problem, and then not to develop a victim complex. After all, your brain is literally trying to show you every imaginable way the world could be “out to get you.”
This is why exposure is so effective as a treatment for fear or anxiety. By gradually reintroducing the stressor into someone’s life — and showing them that they are able to handle it—the brain is able to return to a neutral state because a feeling of control and security is being reestablished.
This is also why people who have stronger social ties and mental resilience prior to a traumatic event are more likely to use the event as a catalyst for self-reflection, growth, compassion and healing, as opposed to self-destruction. They had multiple ties to that essential feeling of “safety,” so even if one was eroded or severed, others still were there to support them.
What happens to your brain after a traumatic event?
Neurologically, we process stress in three parts of the brain.
The first is the amygdala, the second is the hippocampus, and the third is the prefrontal cortex. Individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have a smaller hippocampus (the center of emotion and memory) increased amygdala function (the center of rumination and creativity) and decreased medical prefrontal/anterior cingulate function (the center that governs complex behaviors like planning, and self-development).
It becomes clear, then, why trauma tends to have the following impact on us:
- Our brains stop processing memory fully, leaving us with fragments of what happened, sometimes contributing to the feeling of disassociation.
- Our ability to manage a range of emotion decreases.
- We become stifled and stuck, have trouble planning for the future, and our self-development and actualization comes to a halt.
When we enter a state of fight-or-flight, our body literally ceases any advanced function that is not necessary for our survival. The body’s main receptors become extremely sensitive and reactive to stimuli. This is a beautiful and essential part of being human, it’s kept us alive as a species. However, it is not a state that is meant to be sustained.
Centuries ago, when we were at the lower rung of actualization, or the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy, what concerned us most was physical survival. Today, our focus is primarily on self-actualization and meaningfulness and trying to feel “safe” through social acceptance, money, or mental acuity.
With all of this grey area, it seems obvious that more people would be mentally and emotionally struggling than they did prior, despite having more physical challenges to overcome.
How do we heal?
Recovery comes down to something very simple, which is restoring the feeling of one’s safety.
However, the most important part of this restoration is that you must reestablish a feeling of safety in the exact area of life that traumatized you.
Often, if someone is traumatized by a relationship they had when they were young, they will reinvest that energy into valuing being attractive, or successful. To them, they believe that if they are “good enough,” they can never be denied or rejected again. However, we all know this is not how this works. It actually makes us have unhealthy and destructive attachments to these things.
- If we are traumatized by a relationship, we restore the feeling of safety by working on other healthy, safe relationships.
- If we are traumatized by money, we restore the feeling of safety by doing what we must to ensure we have enough, and saving for an emergency expense.
- If we are traumatized by job loss, we restore the feeling of safety by having a backup plan, or a side-gig, in line in case it were to happen again.
- If we are traumatized by being bullied, we restore the feeling of safety by finding new friends.
What most people try to do is overcompensate in an area of life which did not hurt them. If they struggled in relationships, they hoard money to keep themselves “safe.” Of course, it is always futile, because it is not the severed tie that needs repair.
Your trauma is not “in your head,” it is literally a changed state in your brain, and the only way you will help your body to return to its actual state is by recreating the feeling of safety that allows you to “turn off” survival mode, and return to normal life.