Trauma is Like Being Stuck in One Scene of a MovieJul 29, 2022
We hear a lot about trauma, from our friends and loved ones who have served in the military and experienced the horrors of war, to people who have endured abusive relationships with a spouse or a parent. Sometimes a traumatic response may occur when we’ve witnessed something awful, beyond what we can handle.
When someone experiences trauma, the brain is trapped in one scene of a movie.
After the traumatic event has happened, an individual may stay in an extremely stressed state in a way that has become disordered. The individual’s ability to function in a “normal” or healthy way has been disrupted. That is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD can occur when someone has gone through or witnessed a seriously dangerous life event that is outside the normal course of bad things that happen.
We are all wired to process bad things up to a certain point. All of us experience bad events as an unavoidable aspect of life. The problems start when something so bad happens that it overwhelms our normal ability to process what has happened. There is a chemical process that essentially burns the experience into the very fiber of our being.
Our various neurological and psychological systems and mechanisms are meant to be activated when we are in danger, to alert us to trouble and keep us safe. People who have suffered serious trauma may find themselves experiencing the event over and over again, constantly on alert, constantly fearful, unable to move on, as if it were happening right now.
When we are unable to deal with trauma in a healthy way, the trauma becomes frozen in time. It can’t work its way through the memory systems and pathways in our brains, and as a result, it goes unprocessed, creating a feedback loop.
An individual living with unprocessed trauma may then lose the ability to discern then from now. As a result, the usual ability to maintain healthy emotional regulation dissolves.
Here is what this looks like, laid out in steps:
- There must be a trauma. You have to be exposed to something awful, beyond what you can handle.
- Then you start to see the intrusion of thoughts. Flashbacks, as if they are back on the battlefield, or being abused again. You are reliving the movie and you can’t stop it.
- Emotional numbness. You lose the ability to feel. You shut down.
- Avoidance behavior. You’ll avoid anything that might remind you of what happened. Your world becomes smaller and smaller as you try to avoid triggering experiences.
- Cognitive disturbances. Can’t concentrate. Everything is interpreted negatively. You feel bad about yourself and about the world. Trust is gone. There are memory issues.
- Mood disturbances. Irritable for no reason. Wild ups and downs, mood swings.
- Derealization. People feel like they are not connected to the outside world. They feel detached from reality, and they doubt reality. They can see and feel reality just like we can, but they can’t experience it because of the detachment and numbness.
- All of this winds up affecting healthy functioning in some way, often debilitating.
You will find that many individuals wind up in a situation where their brain is simply unable to distinguish between what was then and what is now. You can’t think your way out of it. You may find that you don’t have the words to put to the feelings. Your body and all of your systems are telling you that it is actually happening again, right now.
The symptoms cluster around the arousal systems of the body, causing a persistent state of hyper-vigilance. You see people get startled at the slightest provocation or ordinary moment. This active arousal state is at the center of PTSD.
All of this is awful to experience and traumatized individuals may have a difficult road to recovery ahead of them, but the good news is that we have made tremendous progress toward treating and addressing all of the various aspects of trauma and PTSD.
I’d like to share more about that good news with you.