Trauma Later in Life
PTSD and CPTSD are the result of experiencing intense negative experiences, even just once in life. Trauma is not just about childhood or war. Trauma is about embodying a fear response after an intensely negative experience. Children who are exposed to abuse and trauma may develop what is called 'a heightened stress response'. This can impact their ability to regulate their emotions, lead to sleep difficulties, lower immune function, manifest as codependency and people pleasing in adulthood, and increase the risk of a number of physical illnesses throughout adulthood.
Many people living with trauma and the fear response face immune system impairment, headaches, fatigue, poor health, autoimmune disorders, and pain symptoms. A nervous system and brain stuck on high alert create struggles with anxiety and worry in daily life.
Trauma also results in feeling disconnected, and being unable to relate to others.
Today we are laying out part 1 of Trauma. The next few weeks are entirely dedicated to trauma, healing from trauma, what is trauma and how it changes us internally and tries to control us externally, PTSD and CPTSD, trauma and fear responses, how trauma manifests in maladaptive was in adulthood, controlling your life outcome regardless of your past life experiences, and the effects of long term stress, fear, and trauma on the mind and body. Today is all about What is trauma / The difference between trauma, fear, and stress / How trauma lives in our body; The science of trauma / How trauma impacts our self belief and the narrative we carry in life / What trauma looks like as a manifestation to live with in adulthood. We first have to get to know the mechanisms of trauma before we can use our life tools to transform and repair from trauma.
What is Trauma & the Difference Between Fear and Stress
Over the years, trauma has become a blanket term for negatively impactful experiences in life. Trauma, fear, and stress may be confused together as they can feel quite similar. Before getting into the meat, fat, and juice of Trauma we first need to clear up what is fear, stress, and of course trauma.
Taking a look at fear first, fear falls into a category of nervous system phenomenon that we can reliably call an emotion. The definition of emotions is continually debated, but soon we will see what makes up an emotion and how fear qualifies as one. Think about fear and how it has felt for you, how fear has manifested for you, and how fear has compelled you to do or not do something. Fear happens in our body and in our mind. Fear is all encompassing for a human. We physically feel fear by getting hot, trembling, or uncomfortable. Fear will make us feel like we need to do something, whether that is run or scream or freeze up; fear activates our entire mind and body. We know fear with thoughts & images that come to mind.
What do you see when you think of fear?
Did you start feeling things when you started thinking and seeing fear in your mind?
This combination of experiencing in both our mind and our body is what we call emotion. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), emotion is defined as “a complex reaction pattern, involving experiential, behavioral and physiological elements.” Emotions are how individuals deal with matters or situations they find personally significant.
The difference between stress and fear is that stress is a physiological response where we have greater blood flow and higher heart rate. Our body responds to stress in biological ways, such as releasing cortisol. During times of stress, your body can release the hormone cortisol. During stress your body can also release its “fight or flight” hormones, such as adrenaline, so you continue to stay on high alert. In addition, the stress hormone cortisol triggers the release of glucose (sugar) from your liver for fast energy during times of stress. If we are anxious often, which is an emotion, we typically experience chronic stress and the physiological response to it. Anxious people generally live in stress and I mean this deep down in the body.
We cannot have fear if we do not have several if not all of the stress responses. But we can have stress without having fear. Why? Because stress is just a body response. Yes, it releases hormones in our brain. For something to be an emotion, which involves the mind and body, this means your mind is creating thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. Automatically producing hormones is not what is meant by the mind in regards to the body. Fear is a total response with hormones, chemicals, thoughts, feelings, and action of some sort even if it means immobility.
Anxiety is typically stress about a future event, not fear. We will dedicate an entire episode to anxiety hopefully before the end of this year, 2022. We can't really have fear without seeing or observing or experiencing some of the elements of anxiety, but we can have anxiety without having fear. This is not to say anxiety and fear can not go hand in hand. I surely experience great fears of going towards certain things because my anxiety is notifying me, not just my stress. What you're trying to realize is that fear is built up from certain basic elements that include stress and anxiety, and then there is trauma and trauma also requires a specific definition.
Taking a look at trauma, the definition can vary.
The DSM-5 definition of trauma requires “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence” (p. 271). Stressful events not involving an immediate threat to life or physical injury such as psychosocial stressors (e.g., divorce or job loss) are not considered trauma in this definition.
Psychological, or emotional trauma, is damage or injury to the psyche after living through an extremely frightening or distressing event and may result in challenges in functioning or coping normally after the event.
The operational definition of trauma is that some kind of fear took place, which of course includes stress and anxiety and that fear somehow gets embedded or activated in our nervous system such that it shows up at times when its maladaptive. Trauma can be maladaptive because this fear doesn't serve us well and it gets reactivated at various times, for example when we are trying to fall asleep or when we first wake up in the morning. Even though we are no longer in the presence of the thing that frightened us deeply we still suddenly have what feels like a panic attack and we are experiencing deep fear. This is post traumatic stress or post-traumatic fear.
The layering up of stress and anxiety create fear and trauma.
Trauma In Our Body | The Science of Trauma and Our Fear System
It’s important to understand where trauma comes from. It is equally as important to understand how trauma comes to be a part of us, how it impacts our nervous system, and what it is doing to us once trauma sets in. We are going to quickly talk about our ever-important autonomic nervous system as well as our animal mind consisting of the amygdala. This might trigger you to think or feel that this is boring stuff, but I’m going to argue we have been taught to think helpful information is boring. If you want more engaging content, then follow my instagram account From Struggle to Success. As a natural artist and creator, I pushed away my scientific mind for almost 30 years. I have never been more happy and comfortable now that I engage and enjoy both the sciences and arts of life. Information is power. Choose to collect as much power as you can in life.
Threat & fear reflex exist to help us from dying and to help us from making really bad decisions. It just so happens that a number of things happened to us in the past that are not lethal and don't actually harm us, but still harm us from the inside. Trauma can embed into our body and create behaviors, thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that do not serve us in our daily life, but we unconsciously do these things anyways because we are reacting in a way to keep our self safe. You may experience abuse as a child, and therefore as an adult you may truly believe and feel that you are worthless or unloveable. These thoughts, feelings, and beliefs directly create what behaviors you choose in life. When we feel worthless, we could very much (on accident) create a life that is worthless to our Self. It is important to override what our past handed to us and choose the better things in life to get what we need moving forward. You can overcome your past experiences and be more than what they made you believe about your Self or life as a whole.
Trauma is not a single lane highway into our nervous system. Our nervous system may be better known as our mind and body. I want to point out how autonomic arousal relates to the aspect of our nervous system that we call the autonomic nervous system. Autonomic means automatic, which is somewhat of a misnomer because there are aspects of our autonomic nervous system that we can very much control via choices and leveraging neural chemicals. Our autonomic nervous system controls things like digestion, urination, sexual behavior, stress when we want to be awake or asleep. The autonomic nervous system has two branches and one is called the sympathetic autonomic nervous system. Think of the sympathetic nervous system as the alertness nervous system is what ramps up your levels of alertness and ramps up your levels of vigilance. Think about it as the accelerator on your alertness and attention. It can be confusing because it is called sympathetic, so I have trained my brain to know that it is like a polar opposite to it’s truth; the sympathetic nervous system has no sympathy for the weak and revs everything up to get things going full speed. The other branch of the autonomic system is the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. The parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system are the cells and neurons and chemicals and other aspects of your brain and body that are involved in the calming nervous system. Think of parasympathetic as paring with the sympathy of life to calm down, I do. So sympathetic is alerting and parasympathetic is calming and it acts as sort of a seesaw to adjust your overall level of alertness. When we are calm, the autonomic nervous system seesaw is quite level. Sympathetic a bit more if awake, parasympathetic if sleepy.
Our fear system is made up of a few fundamental components of our brain. We have just talked about the autonomic nervous system. Moving forward, I am going to in amazing-brief mention the HPA axis and then touch on the popularly known amygdala.
The HPA axis is fully known as the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis. The HPA has the ability to trigger the release or prevent the release of particular hormones like cortisol or the hormones that go stimulate ovaries to produce estrogen or testes to produce testosterone or adrenal for adrenaline. Think of the HPA as a control center of many things. The HPA axis includes a piece of the brain hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenal. This system uses your brain to alert or wake up your body.
The longer lasting component of our fear response can actually change not just the connections of different areas of the brain, and the way that our organs work and how we breathe. Longer lasting fear responses can actually feed back to the brain and literally control gene expression which can take many days and build out new circuits and new chemicals that can embed fear in our brain and body. Thankfully, this can always be leveraged and changed. We are not stuck with trauma and the response to fear for a lifetime. We can leverage our neural chemicals to undo the fear response to extinguish the fear response and replace it with non-fearful associations. We will talk about healing and transforming trauma in the next trauma-dedicated episode for next week.
You may have heard of the amygdala before. The amygdala is located in the medial temporal lobe, just in front of the hippocampus. It is shaped like an almond. The amygdala is our threat reflex.
We have already tried to envision it once today, and lets try for it again - It is important to conceptualize fear as including a reflex so much as you have reflexes that are physical. We don’t just absorb fear, we respond to it in some way. Imagine being in a situation that makes you feel intense fear - how are you responding or behaving because of how you are feeling? Are you running, crying, shutting down, yelling, or maybe being aggressive?
The amygdala is the part of the threat reflex so much so that we can really say that it's the final common pathway through which the threat reflex flows. In other words, the amygdala is essential for the threat response, but the threat reflex and the threat response is kind of a dumb response. It's not a sophisticated thing, it's very generic and this is also a very important point. After all, our amygdala resides in our lower level animal mind where emotions and reactions more so come from. Our logical thought came later in life when our prefrontal cortex became a part of human’s brains for cognitive functioning. One of the beauties of the fear system is that it's very generalizable. Our fear system is not designed for you to be afraid of any one thing. The real capacity of the fierce system is that we can become afraid of anything provided that this threat system is activated in conjunction with some external experience.
The amygdala is not the fear center. It is a critical component of the threat reflex. The threat reflex system shuts down all of the areas for calming, which is the parasympathetic system. When we are responding to fear we can not be calm because that is the opposite end of our autonomic nervous system response.
Self Belief & The Narrative Story We Carry
Our fear response is not just in our brain. Remember, fear is both brain and body. Fear does all sorts of things to our nervous system as previously discussed. But, what more does fear do to us internally? And, how does this manifest externally into our real life?
Our fear response also includes the adaptive or arguable maladaptive approach to adopting a narrative, story, or belief based off of our negative experience. We attach narrative, attach meaning, and attach purpose to what is, fundamentally, a generic response to fear. There's no negotiating what fear feels like. There's only negotiating what it means to our Self. There's only negotiating whether or not you persist, whether or not you pause, or whether or not you retreat. And we can choose to override this deeply embedded yet generic internal system.
This week we are talking about what trauma is and how it sets into our body, altering how we think, feel, and act. Next week we will deep dive into what we do after trauma sets in, how to heal from trauma, and how an incredibly strong lifestyle success tool referred to as re-parenting can transform our life and knock out what was not working for us in adulthood. First we have to get to know trauma and what it really does inside of us. We can not heal from things that we do not know about. Knowledge is power and freedom.
Our threat & fear reflex exists to help us from not dying and to help us from not making really bad decisions. Though many things in modern life that happen are not lethal, we still have intense experiences that leave our body feeling unsafe afterwards. Many things in modern life can harm us from the inside. We are mentally and emotionally susceptible to so many dangers and our biology has not caught up to the fact that we are not just animals trying to survive anymore, we are now cognitive human creatures trying to thrive in a technologically focused world. We may not be getting beat up in person, but we can get beat up time again in the online realm, for example. Our experiences, wherever and however they occur, can create fear and trauma if particularly negative.
Some memories can be protective while other memories can be dangerous. This is our nervous system using our beliefs, thoughts, and feelings. This is why it is important to heal from trauma, squash negative self talk, and create an unshakable self belief as our experiences become memories that transform into thoughts, feelings, and actions. If we are carrying trauma, then we may carry the belief we have to say yes to everything because saying no results in not good things happening and therefore we develop into a people-pleaser or chronic yes-sayer. If we are carrying trauma, we may think we are worthless and therefore act in low level ways not supporting our own needs and welcoming low level humans in because we do not believe or feel we deserve any better. Trauma can create codependency. Trauma can result in us not wanting to ever ride a bicycle again or eat a particular food.
Sometimes our memories evoke a sense of fear in us in order to protect us from making bad mistakes or getting injured. Sometimes memories make sure we don't break a bone or poison our Self.
Dr. Ressler points out that memories become dangerous when they create a sense in us of discomfort and they set the limit of our behavior in ways that are maladaptive, preventing us from having healthy relationships with others, healthy jobs, and overall healthy self-supporting choices.
We may be living in such a unique survival mode that we are never living a life aligned with our needs.
Our needs do not reside in fear and trauma. If anything, our needs are hiding in the darkness and mess that is anxiety, trauma, stress, and fear. We must go towards what makes us uncomfortable if we ever want to feel different or better or have more in life. We have to challenge our automatic state of being, become self aware of the mechanisms inside of us, and leverage via making conscious choices that are within our lane. Remember your lane is your solid life blueprint and on either side of your lane are your boundaries and life standards.
Fears Are Memories
Obvious or not, much of the fear system is a memory system.
Fear is designed to embed a memory from a profound previous experience. Fear is designed to recall this memory and use it in us such that the threat reflex is activated and there is anticipation of what might happen to us.
Recall Pavlov's dog.
Salivation will occur with the sound of a bell + food.
Over time the food is removed and the dog still salivates to the bell.
We are not like pavlov’s dog in regards to trauma and our fear response.
Unlike pavlov’s dog, you do not need many many pairings of an object with a stimulus in order to get a response. We do not need the same experience again and again to absorb the impact. For humans, it just takes one time with something deeply intense for it to affect us for year on after, and potentially a lifetime if it goes unaddressed.
Humans can get one-trial learning with fear. For trauma and fear it is not about quantity, it's about quality AKA intensity.
For many people it just takes one intense experience for trauma to set in.
One bad break up, one bad experience during public speaking, one dangerous accident, one business error that cost it all, one serious body burn, or one experience with a pet snake or anything that deeply twists us up.
Trauma is not just about war and then PTSD.
Trauma is not just about abusive parents and then CPTSD.
Trauma can come from any corner or hiding place in life, and at any time.
Seriously, we usually get one trial with negative experiences and then they become a part of us in some way. We can remember it and/or we feel it when triggered.
Memories of the negative (traumatic) experience are troubling to feel and therefore we have a physiological response to the troubling. We react to trauma, after all, that is why we are referring to it as the fear response. Essentially, trauma gets wired into us as a fear with one trial which is quite different than the other forms of neuroplasticity; neuroplasticity being the nervous system's ability to change in response to experience.
We typically do not get one trial learning with neutral or positive experiences; non-negative experiences require gradual learning. How annoying is this!? Let the good times roll!
Think about a time when you became afraid. You could have also felt embarrassed or ashamed in this moment. Your heart rate increases and maybe you started to sweat. This experience was so negative that you now avoid all things that are even similar to it.
Maybe when a child you terribly embarrassed your Self playing an instrument and now you avoid that instrument. Perhaps you tried to dance when young and were shamed because you are jumping around rather than grooving. The aforementioned is indeed an experience I had as a kid. I had to deeply work through the shame of my mom yelling at me for “not dancing the right way” while playing around in our living room at age 4. Thankfully, my body wanted to dance so much throughout development that my massive desire to dance helped me face my fears and move toward dance. I had to challenge my Self by saying yes to dance when every part of me was screaming “No do not ever dance again there is too much shame and hurt with it!” I re-wrote what dance means to me and have absolutely reclaimed it as a healthy daily movement practice in adulthood. It's amazing how fear and trauma can keep us from the things that can bring the most joy to our Self.
This fear conditioning is one trial learning.
It just takes one negative, fearful experience to change our behaviors in the future. Because we are keen to self-protect, of course.
The fear system can also batch many different experiences and moments in time to create one specific fear.
We Can Embody Fear in 2 ways
In summation, we can take fear in two ways:
Fear can be embedded through our "top down" response, meaning we created and attached a narrative to it. We have thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about our experience that were created in our cognition-creating prefrontal cortex part of our brain. Our mind manufactured a fear, wrote a negative story about it, and then communicated it through our body. Our body can respond in healthy or unhealthy ways to this.
Fear response can also be learned and associated with a particular event. It can take 1 thing or many things to create a Fear or Trauma in a human.
Very basically how we learn fear is within neuroplasticity and down in the cellular level is the process of long-term potentiation. We strengthen responses overtime.
Long-term depression is the weakening of connections, And this is what happens when we extinguish or unlearn a fear.
Trauma and Fear Manifesting in Adulthood
If we have experienced trauma in our life, whether childhood or adulthood, we are then unconsciously responding to it. Our response to trauma can include persistent fatigue, people pleasing and being highly sensitive to others, sleep disorders, codependency, depression, nightmares, fear of recurrence, avoidant or obsessive behaviors, anxiety, as well as avoidance of emotions, sensations, or activities that are associated with the trauma, even if slightly similar.
A common symptom that arises from traumatic experiences is hyperarousal (also called hypervigilance). Hyperarousal is the body’s way of remaining prepared. It is characterized by sleep disturbances, muscle tension, and a lower threshold for startle responses and can persist years after trauma occurs. It is also one of the primary diagnostic criteria for PTSD. I absolutely live with hypervigilance. Most of my life I was terrified to close my eyes at night, I can get paranoid especially if my anxiety has already been unraveling for some time, I worry people are dangerous and become fearful of all other humans, I am on high alert at home and know all my exits when at other places, and I am immensely aware of every little thing that is going on around me. My friends think I am an amazingly aware and careful human, but little do they know that these behaviors manifest from anxiety, fear, and complex trauma.
Hyperarousal is a consequence of biological changes initiated by trauma. Although it serves as a means of self-protection after trauma, it can be detrimental. Hyperarousal can interfere with an individual’s ability to take the necessary time to assess and appropriately respond to specific input, such as loud noises or sudden movements. Sometimes, hyperarousal can produce overreactions to situations perceived as dangerous when, in fact, the circumstances are safe. WhenI become overstimulated and therefore my nervous system is dysregulated I will lash out like a lion to any one or thing that seems like a threat to me, and this can include seemingly harmless statements or motions. My mind and body are wired in my past experience and I play it out in real time in inappropriate ways. I overcome this low level response by working on my emotional regulation and practicing better responses, which therefore set into my nervous system and re-teach my Self how to better respond for true safety and satisfaction in adult life.
Along with hyperarousal, sleep disturbances are very common in individuals who have experienced trauma. Sleep issues can come in the form of early awakening, restless sleep, difficulty falling asleep, nightmares, and full blown insomnia. Sleep disturbances are most persistent among individuals who have trauma-related stress. I posit this is very much true because stress cortisol is a neural hormone that when activated doesn't allow us to live in the calmer part of our autonomic nervous system (parasympathetic). Cortisol is what wakes us up from sleep and starts up our internal circadian clock for the day. If you want to learn everything about what makes us tick and how to control your sleep, check out the first ever episode of From Struggle to Success.
Highly sensitive people can be adults born from trauma, but also highly sensitive people can be children that experienced trauma in adolescents. For those who were born with the trait of high sensitivity, there’s an even greater susceptibility to being traumatized when there’s a lack of sufficient emotional nurturing early in life. Emotional abuse and neglect usually go hand in hand with highly sensitive people. There are many people living life unaware they are highly sensitive people and/or are living with trauma as well as responding to it.
A strong example of the association with highly sensitive people and trauma is the following. All children need to feel safe to thrive. Most children can find a way to survive, though this can be very unfortunate. If you are highly sensitive, feeling safe can be even harder to achieve. When safety and comfort don’t happen in your realm and when there is nobody to show you how protected you are, this carries into the adult experience of life as well and becomes complex trauma (CPTSD). Very soon an entire episode will be dedicated to highly sensitive people as well as living with hypervigilance.
Traumatic experiences can affect and alter our cognition. From the beginning of a negative experience, trauma challenges the just-world we once thought existed or shakes up our core life assumptions that help us navigate daily life. For example, it can be difficult to leave the house in the morning if it is believed that the world is not safe, that all people are dangerous, or that life holds no promise. That is not just depression and lack of motivation, that is a deeply ingrained way of living based off of your fear response to a trauma. Traumatic events—particularly if they are unexpected—can challenge our entire belief system and how we feel about the world and/or our Self. One way to begin overriding unhelpful and damaging beliefs is to embody the new belief that one’s efforts and intentions can protect oneself from bad things, which makes it less likely for an individual to perceive personal vulnerability. Come to know your Self as a force to be reckoned with rather than being forced to feel certain ways that do not serve you. You can always take back control even if it feels worlds away from possibility. Don’t let your feelings control your reality; you choose the internal and external world you live in, it just takes consistent effort.
It is always up to us! We always have control, even if it seems we have lost it. It never slips away from our grasp, just possibly very far from our perception.
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