Why Do The Effects of Trauma Stay With You?
Updated: Jul 31, 2019
Say you are driving down the street, singing to the radio and thinking about going to dinner with a few of your friends. It starts to drizzle, and you notice how refreshing the drops feel as they lightly sprinkle your face through the open window. Then suddenly…crash! You are hit from behind by another car! You are completely caught off guard because you didn’t even notice the car behind you, but you pull over and put the car in park, then get out to see the damage. You exchange information with the other driver, and perhaps make a call to a loved one. Then you get back in your car and drive away.
Later that day, you notice you are shaking. What’s going on? The accident was hours earlier, but your body is having a reaction now. This is because the trauma you felt from the accident was not yet consolidated by a part of your brain called the Hippocampus. The Hippocampus did this to allow you to have time to take care of yourself and survive (like you did)! However, once the experience is encoded by the Amygdala, your body then begins to have symptoms. Non-verbal memories, like body sensations and emotional reactions, are different than the narrative story you may remember. So even if your brain remembers one version of the trauma you experienced and thinks the accident was not a big deal, your body and emotional memory may remember another version of it and may have their own reaction.
Our brains are really smart though, and when you have been traumatized your brain wants to protect you from future harm. The Amygdala becomes sensitized to triggers that may have been present during the original trauma. Anything can be a trigger. It can be a smell, a time of day or year, the expression on someone’s face, even the color of a baseball hat. This is what the brain does… it becomes sensitive to triggers as an ancient survival response, because it wants to warn you and keep you safe from experiencing the same trauma again!
When people are triggered, some go into hyperarousal and some into hypoarousal. Hyperarousal can cause your heart rate to increase, your palms to sweat, and you can even become severely agitated. Hypoarousal can cause you to feel as if you are floating outside of your body, kind of checked out altogether. 30% of traumatized people go directly into hypoarousal – they show no change or decrease in heart rate activation during traumatic recall. This is why some trauma is confused with depression.
Now imagine nine months have gone by since that car accident. And one day you are driving your car again, and it starts to drizzle outside. A few drops splatter you on the face, and suddenly your heart starts to pound rapidly. Your mouth gets dry and your palms start to sweat. The reaction is so confusing that you pull over to the side of the road. You may even call someone to come pick you up, because the idea of driving any further in the rain is much too anxiety provoking for you.
Our bodies have something called procedural learning, which is a learned pattern of response. Tying your shoes is an example of procedural learning. It is an automatic memory for process and function. Neuroplacity is when your brain continues to learn over time by constantly creating new pathways. When we feel threatened, the mind and body adapt by turning the future into a version of PAST danger. Pretty smart of your brain, right? So when it starts to rain, your brain tells you to pull the car over so you won’t get rear-ended again.
The problem is, long after environmental conditions have changed (or perhaps years after that car accident), we remain in a state of readiness to perform the actions that were adaptive in the past. And once these actions become procedural, they do not require cortical involvement. Which means they are now automatic and non-conscious. Sometimes these actions are helpful, but usually they are really restrictive and are no longer protecting or serving you.
If you are suffering from the effects of trauma, it can feel like you are going through life with your hands tied behind your back. You don’t have full access to living the way you would like to live, yet as much as you struggle you cannot stop repeating the behaviors that are holding you back.
There is treatment for trauma. Even if the trauma you experienced was childhood physical or verbal abuse, or perhaps abuse at the hands of a partner when you were an adult. Sometimes people are traumatized by a single incident like an earthquake or a rape, or even an ongoing medical condition.
Living with the effects of trauma can be debilitating, but receiving treatment for your symptoms is a great place to start. Just as your brain learned ways to cope with your trauma, it can now learn ways to cope differently. You are already taking a step in the right direction by just reading this and learning about how your brain has reacted to trauma in the past. Now you can take action to help yourself live a more relaxed and less vigilant future.