A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step. Lao-Tze (c.60 4BC)
There are many ways of looking at trauma, but a philosophical view has rarely been one of them. People might argue that trauma is too painful and existential to be explored hermeneutically. Nonetheless, my most recent task has been to espouse the view that trauma does have meaning and we attract it for a reason. Trauma finds its expression with gusto in the social setting, in wars and protests, in mass movements, as well as in isolation and dissociation. Life is the reactivation of trauma that we must all deal with in different time frames and on different levels. Trauma happens in the body and the brain, it changes the neural chemistry and affects human behaviour. Trauma can determine the way we live our lives, it can be the beginning of a breakdown or a breakthrough. So how should we deal with trauma? Trauma releases adrenalin and cortisol levels in the brain of the individual, it causes altered consciousness and often disturbing behaviour. Interventions exacerbate the increase of chemicals in the brain creating a vicious cycle. People who experience trauma need to feel safe. Feeling safe is an antidote to trauma, but we do not live in a safe world. Our nations, cities, neighbourhoods and often our families are not perceived as being safe.
What happens in the human brain when we experience trauma? Let me start with the brain’s development from infancy and move forward from there…The brain stem is the first and most developed part of the nervous system in a new born child, it is what connects the nerve functions in the body to the centre of operation in the brain. The brain stem manages two important features of the nervous system the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system keeps us alive, it regulates the body temperature, heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure. The sympathetic nervous system is an alarm system aimed at protecting us against a perceived threat and does so by throwing us into a state generally referred to as the fight or flight. We can add freeze to this reaction because some people become so panic stricken they are motionless. When a person is in one of these states all rational thinking is shut down and the body redirects its energy (in the form of adrenalin) to increasing blood flow to the muscles, which in turn increases the heart rate. This allows us to become more alert, stronger and faster; traits our ancestors depended upon when the world was full of wild and dangerous animals. As these responses become more intense the body secretes stress hormones, in particular cortisol, which puts pressure on the vital organs. This can slow the heart rate, reduce the oxygen to the brain and cause a condition called dissociation (a loss of reality or conscious awareness). The state of dissociation reduces awareness of pain and trauma by putting distance between the individual and the causal events (it eliminates the thoughts and feelings in other words).
In all these circumstances, what we need to consider is the perception of threat. Like any form of stress or anxiety trauma is accumulative and the more we experience the impacts the more the brain remembers it, so generally speaking, the feeling of trauma is not aroused by a real threat, but the body will respond as if it is threatened.
The brain remembers all experiences and stores them in the unconscious until somthing triggers their retrieval. When a person has had a past traumatic experience the brain can trigger a physiological response in quite unrelated circumstances and without warning. For many people a triggered response to past trauma is a constant event causing overwhelming fear and anxiety, which can render their lives to be fearful, uncertain and miserable. In turn, post-traumatic behaviour can result in poor decision making. This situation is not easy to remedy because while the individual might remember the first incident leading to trauma; the emotional responses may not be remembered or they may change over time; for better or worse. Why?
Let us turn to the brain’s limbic system. The brain is divided into two hemispheres. The limbic system is in the sub-cortical or inner parts of each hemisphere. The two major features that are relative to trauma are the amygdala which, amongst other things manages our emotions, and the hippocampus, which is key to our learning and the storing of memories. It is the hippocampus that allows us to retrieve those memories, but it is not the centre that discriminates, we need the part of the brain that reasons for that to happen and, as previously stated, when fight, flight or freeze kick in, reason shuts down.
The area of the brain called the limbic system goes through its major development during the first four to five (and in some cases six) years of life. These early years are crucial for building the brain’s neural pathways. When development is impeded through early trauma the limbic system fails to develop to its full potential and this can impair the ability to act appropriately to events or towards other people. It can cause the emotions to run wild and lessen the ability for an individual to adapt to changing circumstances or even to feel they have a place in the world. The amygdala and hippocampus can interact with each other to surface painful memories and put the mind into a constant state of disorientation, which causes them to see the world differently and often as very threatening.
In many respects we all see the world differently and this is not necessarily a bad thing, it only becomes a problem when a person has lost control over their life and wellbeing or s/he puts the wellbeing of others at risk. The feeling of being overwhelmed can be easily remedied by reducing activity (sit down) breathe mindfully, in other words pay attention to each in and out breath. Allow your body to feel like a rag doll (relax) and be aware that being overwhelmed or anxious is never going to harm you; it is just unpleasant, that’s all.
Let me now mention the pre-frontal cortex (the home of reason). The prefrontal cortex is significantly more mature in humans than in any other species and it governs many of the intellectual functions of the brain including learning, reason and sound decision making, debate, planning and some forms of abstract thinking or problem solving. This is the area that shuts down when pain, suffering and trauma begin to surface.
We know from neuroscientific studies that trauma changes the neural pathways and we know that trauma builds upon trauma, also that trauma likes companionship. We know that trauma has a long history and that its impacts are passed from one generation to another and we know that trauma is natural and inevitable, we can use it as an open or locked gate. When the gate is open we are able to develop better perceptions, improved thinking and a more rewarding life.
Without pain and trauma we would not know pleasure, but trauma also finds its catalyst in anger and frustration, which in turn drives people to act in ways that reactivate the trauma.
It is hard to ask someone who has experienced excessive pain and brutality to forgive, but the reality is this, forgiveness is another antidote to trauma and it helps us to feel safe.
Trauma often strikes when a person doesn’t know it is happening. Trauma can be that deadening feeling that has so many other names. Trauma is so many things, feelings, emotions, apparitions, premonitions, deliberations and delusions. Trauma can be experienced in toxic relationships, after an accident or disappointment, or from an incessant feeling of lost hope, confusion and despair. Trauma underscores or is related to all other illnesses, but science has failed to fully understand the importance of trauma as an opportunity heal the internal and disorienting forces that were actually designed by evolution to protect us. Trauma has meaning, it provides us with the lessons we need to move forward and while the experience is painful, the future can also be promising.