In this article, I aim to share with you how trauma can affect you and the impact on the mind and body. An overview will be given of the different arousal states and how they present during trauma.
What is trauma?
Trauma refers to experiences or events that are classed as overwhelming for an individual. These incidents are beyond stressful; they shock the system, feel awful, and can result in secondary feelings of shame, helplessness and powerlessness. Therefore, it is understandable how trauma can affect an individual’s ability to cope.
According to the UK Trauma Council, trauma can be defined as
‘…distressing events that are so extreme or intense that they overwhelm a person’s ability to cope, resulting in lasting negative impact’.
Some of the examples include serious incidents, abuse (all types of abuse), natural disasters, losing someone through death and group hatred/discrimination. Trauma can also occur following the impact of the experience by affecting connection, safety and autonomy.
Research conducted into loss, trauma and human resilience by Bonanno (2004) highlighted four different routes following potentially traumatic events. These routes have been identified as– enduring, recovery, unaffected and delayed and these are set out in the graph below.
How trauma can affect your #: Physiology
The autonomic nervous system can be split into two subsystems: the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) calms to body down to what is known as the ‘rest and digest’ state. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activates the body known as the ‘flight or fight’ state.
During a potential threat in the environment, our SNS is aroused and prepares our body for survival. A range of physiological responses follows including increased heart rate and blood pressure (figure 1). Once the threat is gone, the PNS is once again activated, allowing the body to return to a state of calm. Returning the body to the PNS can take up to an hour to regulate.
When trauma becomes chronic (multiple or ongoing traumatic situations) the body remains in a perpetual state of alert to threats. The ongoing activation of the SNS is an emotional and physiological drain on the body, leading to various health issues such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, headaches and a compromised immune system. This perpetual state of activation leads to our inability to identify the difference between threatening and harmless stimuli. Fear becomes the automatic response for both stimuli.
One of the leading specialists in Trauma, Bessel Van Der Kolk reminds us that
‘The single most important issue for traumatised people is to find a sense of safety in their body again’.
Essential reading: The Body Keeps The Score
How trauma can affect you #2: Symptoms
Trauma impacts every individual differently and this is also the same for how the
Some common trauma symptoms include:
Hyperarousal or hypoarousal states rather than emotionally regulated
Changes in eating and sleeping
How trauma can affect you #3: Brain
There are three main parts of the brain that play a role in understanding how trauma affects the brain. The three main parts include the prefrontal cortex, the limbic system and the brain stem. The prefrontal cortex is the thinking part of the brain, responsible for awareness, language and cognitive processing. The limbic system is designed to deal with memories and emotions. The brain stem also known as the survival system, supports breathing, circulation, arousal and balance.
The Hand Model of the Brain
Dan Siegel a clinical professor of Psychiatry outlines a model using the hand to identify how the brain works and responds to traumatic experiences. This model has been used to gain an understanding of what goes on in the mind and body in traumatic experiences.
The hand model of the brain comprises the prefrontal cortex, the limbic system and the brain stem with each corresponding to part of the hand.
Your arm and wrist represent the spinal cord. Your palm represents the brain stem, your thumb represents the limbic system, and your fingers represent the prefrontal cortex.
During times when the SNS is activated through feeling threatened or feeling emotionally compromised the limbic system (thumb) is feeling overwhelmed. If the flight or fight system is activated the prefrontal cortex (fingers) are pushed open. So when you ‘flip your lid’ the rational thinking part of the brain is no longer in control. This can lead to emotional and behavioural responses that are a result of extreme emotions.
Essential Reading: Pocket Book Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology
How trauma can affect you #4: Window of tolerance
The window of tolerance was originally defined by Dan Siegel (1999) as the optimal zone of ‘arousal’ for everyday life. When an individual is within the window of tolerance one is able to effectively tolerate and manage difficult situations.
Individuals who have experienced trauma can find it difficult to regulate emotions and stay grounded within the window of tolerance. In addition, individuals who have experienced trauma tend to have a narrower window of tolerance in which to stay emotionally regulated and can oscillate between hyperarousal or hypoarousal.
The hyperarousal is when the nervous system activates the ‘flight or fight’ state. It can be triggered by a perceived threat, memories, or an emotional response. A range of symptoms is displayed when in this state:
The hypoarousal state is when the nervous system goes into a ‘shutdown’ state, where one can dissociate and experience feelings of numbness. The activation of the threat system through a perceived threat, memories, or an emotional response can trigger an individual into the hypoarousal state just the same as the hyperarousal state.
Inability to speak
How trauma can affect you
In this article, we have looked at how trauma can affect you, your health, and your relationships. In addition, an outline has been given on trauma, trauma responses and how the mind and body are impacted.
From this article you will be able to identify symptoms that are displayed in the different arousal states. If you are struggling to work towards an emotionally regulated place, working with a trauma informed practitioner can help you to extend the window of tolerance.