Stress, Trauma and How Our Body Responds

Dr Robert Scaer, neurologist and one of the world experts in the field of trauma defines trauma as "a life threat in a state of helplessness". Our brain is strongly wired to protect us from life threats through a series of message systems in the limbic or mammalian brain that allow us to assess danger and then initiate a self-preservation response.

It is wired to assess any danger and does so through different areas of the brain, starting in the amygdala (the fight-flight center in the mammalian brain). Once danger is assessed the brain begins a response to handle it.

At times one cannot escape the threat, and under these circumstances the brain is wired to initiate a freeze or immobility response.

If helplessness occurs and the normal recovery from the freeze response doesn’t occur, (i.e a discharge of autonomic and physical somatic energy), then we have a conditioned response whereby the memories and sensations of that experience are stored in the survival brain.

The survival brain has to learn with each threatening and/or dangerous experience and build up a repertoire of survival based instincts and capacities.

If you freeze and don’t get rid of that stuck energy, it will be stuck in your brain and body as a conditioned survival response, though a false response. The storage of those false memories (and false beliefs my words) is basically the structure of trauma.

Being able to discharge the freeze response completes the act of self preservation.


The discharge can be very subtle. If a person is shamed for instance, the blush that happens  is part of the dorsal vagal freeze response and the discharge can be a subtle little shudder or completion that wouldn’t be that obvious.

The discharge may not be as dramatic as fearing for your safety but in either case, discharge wipes out that memory from the survival brain because you don’t need it anymore.

Our survival bank is full of false information (and beliefs) when the freeze response is not allowed to complete its cycle. (This is why EFT and Matrix Reimprinting are so effective as these techniques release the freeze response at the times we were not able to when we were  younger).

Multiple incidents

This is typical in cases where trauma has been multiple, especially typical of cases where it has occurred early in childhood because that sets the pattern that continues the restoring of cue-based old memories, amplifying them and growing them and keeping you more and more stuck in the past.

Many of these complex victims, who have had severe childhood and adult complex incidents including multiple chemical sensitivities, environmental allergies, sick building syndrome, sensitivity to sound etc, these are all syndromes of sensitization that can be seen in many complex trauma victims.

These early victims will have a relative decrease in the size of the hippocampus which is the declarative or conscious memory center of the brain. This is linked to the endocrine system and early on, cortisol, the stress hormone is increased. Prolonged exposure to cortisol also causes atrophy of the hippocampus.

In these cases the hypothalamic-pituatary–adrenal axis (HPA axis) is very dysregulated, meaning that it tends to overreact. It ends up a syndrome of exaggerated abnormal regulation of many systems, emotional, endocrine and immune.

Chronic diseases don’t have end points

Many chronic diseases are first caused by a biological conflict shock and are re-triggered by sound, pictures, feelings, taste, smell – all of our senses. Chronic diseases don’t have end points.

Complex trauma is more about interruptions on an emotional, spiritual, physical, sexual level, in the context of a relationship.

If for example, while growing up, if child has a series of relationships where they are emotionally, spiritually, and physically violated through abuse or neglect and repeatedly put at risk,  their healthy development is interrupted. These repetitions create a person who spends their life basically in fight, flight or freeze (being shut down). 

Current relationships trigger the earlier trauma

Helpless and Powerless

Complex trauma is a series of painful events that happen over time where the person feels powerless, out of control and devalued.

While the perpetrator of any form of violence to another - either physical, sexual or emotional abuse - are their attempts at retaining power, control and value.

Dr Scaer defines dissociation as what we perceive when we are in the freeze response. When a person is dissociated they’re out of body, confused, and numb, they are in the freeze response.

Since the dorsal vagal nucleus is the engine for all of our visceral functions, when you’re chronically dissociated, you tend to have these syndromes of visceral (gut, heart, and lung) problems that we see with people with trauma.

Memories that accompany a traumatic event, especially an overwhelming one, or one that was repeated constantly such as in war

All the memories, sights, images, tastes, and smells of those traumatic events are stored in unconscious memory in a very precise and accurate fashion. It includes the physical sensations, the autonomic state, and the emotional state (rage, terror, fear) – all of these are stored in a common state.

Therefore, when a person is dissociated, you’re not conscious. You’re living in a state in the past with all of the features of that state being replicated and typical of prior trauma.

We’re beginning to see that early childhood abnormal attachment is correlated with many of the physical and mental illnesses that we see now.

When Dr Scaer came across this concept, most of the people he was seeing had PTSD  (post traumatic stress disorder) as well. He started to do family histories and childhood histories on all the people in his chronic pain program and in whiplash victims. He found that the common denominator was child abuse in all of these people, and it was absolutely predictable.

Avoidant Attachment

What about people who have experienced avoidant attachment?  It is not that they experienced abuse, but they experienced an apathetic or avoidant parent.

That still produces trauma and vulnerability. The absence of attunement, even within the first days or weeks of the infancy has a deleterious effect on developing resiliency to these events.

Dr. Scaer on our current hospital system

"In our system of medical care, we have created a system of medicine that creates helplessness in the patient and that, in itself, makes it a traumatizing environment.

I think almost all surgical procedures are traumatizing, and I found that diagnoses, especially when diagnosing breast cancer in female patients, is overwhelmingly traumatizing. It has many implications – obviously death is one, but disfigurement is another.

I think most of any diagnoses will be traumatizing and much of it can be mitigated by the presence of caregivers at the time by providing information and control.

It is of utmost importance that the medical system be enlightened as to the fact that any illness will contain elements of trauma and how that is handled throughout the course of treatment will determine how that patient heals.

Frankly, I think our current system of medicine is the gorilla in the living room of our cultural trauma. This is true for adults, and especially for children. If they have to undergo an invasive procedure or put under anesthesia while they are frightened or terrified, it can leave a lasting imprint of fear, anxiety, and depression that may not show up for months or even years later.”

Dr. Alan Shore

Dr. Allan Schore is on the clinical faculty of the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences and UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine.

Dr. Shore discusses the growth of the right or orbital frontal cortex during the early months of life.  He explains that it grows proportionate to the degree of contact with the mother in a bonding fashion in infancy. In those infants who have been nurtured effectively by their mothers, that frontal cortex becomes, as it should, the master regulator of the emotional brain and the autonomic brain.

There’s direct objective evidence for the fact that this early period of time is absolutely critical for the development of the regulated brain.

Emotional communication between the mother and infant , the development or not of the right hemisphere of the brain. (The right develops before the left.)

This is the most plastic period of brain development, this means that not only is the baby more sensitive to negative influences, but also more sensitive to positive influences. When you make changes in the first year of life, those changes will have profound effects down the line, much more than psychotherapy way down the line.

The first 2 years are the most important

The hippocampus reaches its full development in the first 2 years of life and that is responsible for how well we integrate in society. The brain growth spurt occurs from the last trimester of pregnancy to the 2nd year.

Facial gestures, auditory tone of voice, tactile expressions all contribute to making a baby feel safe which is a main priority for the human body.

Attachment is also about intimacy so there will be a capacity for intimacy and also a resilient capacity to deal with stress.

We have this inborn genetically determined motivational system that we are driven by and have a biological instinctual social need to attach to whoever our primary caregivers are.

When that doesn’t go well children go into avoidant attachment. Children tend to disengage and be more withdrawn and be more self-orientated. The big point to understand is that it’s not a choice, it’s an adaptation. They tend to feel isolated from their parents and then later from their partners and don’t really have a template for asking for help that works.

There are other circumstances where parents might appear or behave in an ambivalent or preoccupied manner and children grow up not knowing when the rug is going to get pulled out from under their feet, and they can’t relax.

Very common also in children whose parents are alcoholic or depressed, the child has to walk on eggshells all the time as they do with an unpredictable and angry parent. Children shut down and back off.

Looking at the bigger picture, emotions are our energetic guidance system.

The right and the left brain are separate processors, and have unique biochemistries and neurophysiologies and functions.

Emotion based psychotherapy changes the biological aspects of the human being, and can also change the emotional functions of the individual and evidence shows that it can change brain development.

The good news is that we can heal the pain from the past with the techniques I have learned over he years. I have, even though I had an avoidant mother and abusive father.

Thank you to Bill Tucker for much of the above article which I have adapted here. Bill can be found at: http://www.eft-and-pranic-healing.com/

References;

Dr Robert Scaer, Peter Levine Phd, Stephen Porges Phd, Dr Mathew Friedman, Pat Ogden Phd, Allan Schore Phd, Dr Diane Poole Heller

Gail Mae

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