Trauma, Our Brain & Anxiety
by Linda Meredith
#cptsd I couldn’t have worded this any clearer. Conflict has never been high on my agenda, in fact, I prefer to avoid conflict at all costs. Trauma from childhood, unbeknownst to me, left me unable to stand up for myself in any way, shape or form, I literally felt I had no power, until recent times. Over thirty years ago, however, in my first serious relationship conflict was inevitable, I found my reaction to the conflict far from normal. Faced with conflict I had zero idea what was happening to me during an argument. My boyfriend at that time was so furious with my inability to respond verbally he punched a hole in the wall. Rather than make things better for me, it made things ten times worse.
As I sat there, mentally incapable of stringing words together, tears running down my face, feeling really angry and the only response I could manage was to shrug my shoulders. Then I felt afraid. Very afraid. Again, the fear made no sense to me either. I knew he was overwhelmingly frustrated and he would never hurt me, so why on earth was I inundated with fear and an inability to string words together?
The overwhelm and lack of words continued in times of stress for many, many years, actually decades. Now, over 30 years later, the science of Neurology has an understanding of the events happening in my brain during times of overwhelming stress. Under normal circumstances as we experience our day to day life our brain takes in information via our senses and creates a picture story from them. For example, if I’m on a rollercoaster the senses of fear, speed, excitement, stress, it's not life threatening and I’ll be off in 2 minutes all form a picture story in my Amygdala, the brains emotional centre. The Amygdala then neatly files the sensory picture story away for future reference.
A prolonged traumatic experience does not create this neat, sensory picture story and file it away in the Amygdala. Rather it creates sensory fragments inside our Amygdala, our emotional centre, and they remain there floating around until healed. These sensory fragments then become triggers and the triggers are not logical. For me, I can be at the gym and be triggered and go from listening to my iPod to becoming aware I’m having an anxiety attack. Essentially, a sensory fragment has been triggered out of nowhere and my brain believes I’m unsafe.
In this stress filled, overwhelming situation my adrenaline is also rushing away from the brain and preparing the body for flight, fight or freeze, thereby disabling the logical and emotional parts of my brain. No order is available to me, neither logical or emotional, as I'm literally sorting out what I need to feel SAFE. My whole body is afraid and tense and ready to act, none of which makes sense as logically I am safe in my own home.
Thankfully now I’ve worked out ways to handle the situation when my brain is triggered. Focusing on remembering the sensations and memories around a time I felt good and was having a fun experience, breathing in through the nose and out through my mouth slowly whilst repeating “I am safe” slows the anxiety attack down until it peters out.
My self-talk at the time of the anxiety attack also includes elements of awareness and reassurance of why I'm safe where I am, how I'm safe, what I can do physically if the unsafe feeling continues and whatever it takes to remind myself that I am in charge of how this anxiety attack unfolds. I've learnt to not worry about why I'm triggered as it could be anything. Triggers being sensory were created in my childhood and as I'm not even living in the same state I was raised in there is no obvious connection.
Reflecting back on over 30 years of having zero understanding would do my head in if I bothered to think too much. I'm happy I can laugh now as fear isn't part of my life. I am still working on getting my body to release the tension inside that holds the fear. The good news is what I'm doing is working. One day I hope to have an explanation for how all of this keeps weight on us, as I'm sure I've held a lot in for a long time.
Learning to speak up is not easy. I'm fortunate that I taught my now adult children to speak up, and they in turn now remind me I have to do the same. A special friend of min is also giving me the confidence to put everything I think and feel out on the table plus close friends allow me to remain open and vulnerable. I encourage you wherever you are on your journey to begin understanding that you can indeed use your voice and you can heal and regain your power.
Blessings and dreams,