There are many symptoms of trauma. It can be seen as a constant search for a threat that cannot be found, difficulty sleeping, hyperarousal, constriction in the physical body, flashbacks, and disassociation. some individuals experience reduced ability to cope with stress and mood swings.
What is trauma?
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Fifth edition – Text Revision (DSM 5-TR), which psychotherapists and psychiatrists use as a diagnostic tool, would suggest that trauma,
“is caused by a stressful occurrence, which is outside the range of usual human experience, and that would be markedly distressing to almost anyone.”
It is a
“serious threat to one’s life or physical integrity serious threat or harm to one’s children, spouse, or other close relatives or friends; sudden destruction of one’s home or community seeing another person who is or has recently been seriously injured or killed as the result of an accident or physical violence.”
While the diagnostic criteria in the DSM 5-TR may not be wrong, some experts would argue that it is vague and that there is more to consider what is trauma. Like any definition, this is subjective to a person’s experience. Several experts would argue that surgeries, falls, a diagnosis, abuse, and shootings are outside the realm of usual human experience. This would suggest that a traumatic event may be more than a feeling than a mere subjective definition on paper.
Clinicians who use the Trauma Resiliency Model may argue that symptoms of trauma stems from the frozen residue of energy that has not been resolved and discharged. The natural autonomic, defensive, response could be a stuck response. This stuck residue of energy can pop up when a person has a memory of what has happened, leading to a reaction, to a triggering event. In turn, this energy remains trapped in the nervous system if not managed or released. Furthermore, this frozen energy, such as a tight feeling in the chest, a feeling frozen when triggered, or the need to fight or run away from the triggering situation.
What physiologically happens in someone who has experienced trauma?
Research has shown that an excess of cortisol and adrenaline is released into the body. An individual who has experienced trauma takes the excess of cortisol and adrenaline and automatically fights, flights, freezes, or fawns. Furthermore, memories, triggers, or stressful events can create havoc on our minds, bodies, and souls. Due to the resulting release of excess cortisol and adrenaline, it mobilizes resources from the gut, immune system, elimination system, and parts of the brain responsible for cognition, decision-making, and other higher functions. This energy gets placed into muscles to fight or run for one’s life. Other negative impacts of the stress response can be seen in memory, digestion, concentration, as well as the elimination of toxins.
A study conducted at UCLA suggests that when someone is triggered less, it slows the aging process in their brain. Therefore, being triggered more creates more aging in the brain and can compromise the immune system, as stress hormones inhibit the immune system. All of the above can happen when a triggering memory has been brought to the present. Rosenfield concludes that the memory can be misleading, “it is not fixed images that we rely on, but recreations, imaginations, the past remolded in ways appropriate for the present.”
Consequently, if in a traumatic situation a maladaptive response (fight, flight, freeze, fawn) is never completed in a threatening situation, the nervous system is trying to search for an appropriate response to an inappropriate situation. According to Peter Levine, as we become more desperate to find an appropriate response, we begin to select any image around us at the time of the traumatic situation, which becomes a memory. These images then become related to similar future emotional state but are not useful to one’s survival.
Therefore, a past memory in a current situation can seem more real than life itself. This has been referred to as a trigger, which can cause flashbacks. In healing work, “the relationship that we have with our memories” may be a key to change. Becoming unattached to symptoms, and “release[ing] them from our minds and hearts along with the energy that is locked in our nervous systems” describes the healing process.
When an individual experiences a traumatic or difficult situation, the body releases an excess of stress hormone and reaches for anything as an appropriate response to feel safe, which creates a memory. In turn, the memory creates the future physiological responses that experts call trauma responses.
How do we heal and feel better to deal with these trauma responses?
There are various types of therapies proven to assist in trauma. It is up to the client to do what feels like the right fit for them, while remembering there is no “right” way to heal. Yoga or breath work can slow down the nervous system. Emotional Freedom Technique requires one to tap, access, and release emotions, while speaking the truth. Eye Movement Desensitizing and Reprocessing (EMDR) is used to process the past through the use of techniques to heal the physical and mental state of trauma.
Meditation is just as powerful through the discovery of inner peace. While also, belief can shift biology as in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Neurofeedback and Biofeedback is also another efficacious therapeutic strategy, with the focus on neurological origins of trauma and Heart Rate Variability. Some would go to a shaman or other holistic healers and use energy work or herbal-based medicine. Science continues to explore the aforementioned therapies and healing practices; some practices have more data to support the efficacy while others are emerging in science to determine why these therapies are successful.
The use of Yoga in Trauma Therapy
In the traumatic state, which has been activated in amygdala and the prefrontal cortex and is inhibited by stress, asking somebody to rationalize or think through their response when they are (in an acute) state is asking them to do something of which they are temporarily, neurologically incapable. Therefore, for some, focusing on breath and movement of the physical body awareness is a way to shift active stress.
One study suggests in an active state of stress, one can learn to calm down by learning a set of skills including Tracking, Resourcing, Grounding and Gesturing, Help Now and Shift and Stay. This study mentions something akin to what in Buddhist terms would be described as mindfulness of the body. This state of mindfulness can help calm and stabilize the nervous system. Yoga Nidra is a specific (still and gentle) type of yoga, which has been used to treat PTSD symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, and depression.
Programming the autonomic nervous system, changing beliefs, and thus neuropathways in the brain can shift biology to feel better. It is proven that releasing emotional and physical blockages leads to healing. There are many treatments, it is the preference and which therapeutic style fits with the needs of the client. Whether it is practicing yoga, lifting weights, attending counseling, burning old letters, or throwing eggs at trees to release energy, is up to to the client. Finding the approach to healing and coping with the memories, felt-sense, reactions, and held emotion is key to healing and the understanding and releasing the trauma. The client is not the emotion or feelings, trauma is not a life sentence. With the correct tools and support one can feel better and live a life of wellness past the trauma.
Compson, J. (2014). Meditation, Trauma and Suffering in Silence: Raising Questions about How Meditation is Taught and Practiced in Western Contexts in the Light of a Contemporary Trauma Resiliency Model. Contemporary Buddhism, 15(2), 274–297. https://doi.org/10.1080/14639947.2014.935264
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Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score : brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.