Week 1, Session 2: The Trauma Response
Welcome to Week 1 Session 2! We hope everyone’s feeling ready to really get started.
If this is the first time you're reading this, we’re so happy to have you here! However, if you’re just starting out please do head back to the first session. We build on material throughout the weeks, and we don’t want you to miss anything!
The goals for this session are:
- Understanding how traumatic experiences affect the mind and body
- Learn about the fight/flight/freeze response
- Learn about the difference between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, and how grounding exercises can help us regulate these systems
Today’s grounding exercise will be…
Stand up! If not, sit up straight in your chair. Now shake your feet - and legs - and finally, your arms. Shake it off like if you were a dog coming out of a lake. If it helps, you can picture that dog in your mind. Imagine all the droplets of water coming off your body as little pockets of stress - shake them off!
Remember: we’ll be going through a different grounding exercise each session, so we can find the ones that work best for us. If you don’t feel able to do one, that’s totally fine. Step back and take a moment to breathe instead.
Fun question: If you could choose one season to live in for the rest of your life, what would it be?
The trauma response
Our emotional response to any life event has an impact in our body, but trauma has a very specific way of doing this: the famous fight and/or flight response. Or, as we refer to this response in Bloom: the 3F response! Fight, flight, or freeze. This is a survival mechanism that prepares us to either fight for survival, to run away when you're in danger, or freeze or keep still to avoid detection from outside threats.
This response involves a series of dramatic physical changes designed to give us a burst of energy and strength - as our body's automatic response to danger. Once this danger is over, our systems return to normal function, and we become physiologically “relaxed” again. Our responses to threats are regulated by what’s known as our “sympathetic nervous system” - and by hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline, which are released into the bloodstream. These chemicals are what make it possible to do extraordinary things in emergency situations. You might have heard the common saying that ‘a mother can lift up a car to save her baby’. While that example might be a myth, it’s true that a sudden release of these stress hormones can facilitate incredible strength and speed in life-or-death situations. If you’re interested in looking it up, it’s called ‘hysterical strength’.
You may have also heard of or experienced the “freeze” response. This is also a normal trauma reaction and people who experience it usually report feeling like time slows down and body sensations are numbed. This sometimes happens during or after traumatic situations when we were not able to escape: whether that was a one-time traumatic event, or long-term exposure to a traumatic environment.
As freezing mostly occurs when our perception of the threat is extreme and escape from this situation is impossible, the ‘freezing’ reaction makes perfect sense: some people that have survived physical attacks report this kind of reaction reduces physical pain and emotional terror during such experiences. The ‘freezing’ response - like fight and flight - can therefore also be seen as a kind of adaptation to an extreme circumstance.
The reaction process with fight/flight/freeze responses occurs very quickly and is not a conscious decision.
When your body goes into the fight or flight state, the following changes happen automatically:
- Heart: Your heart begins to beat faster and harder to pump blood containing oxygen and sugar to your major muscles to use for energy. You may feel your heart beating as you breathe more rapidly.
- Lungs: Your breathing rate increases and your airways dilate. More oxygen enters your blood.
- Ears: Your hearing and all of your senses become more acute.
- Eyes: Your pupils dilate to help you see better. Your peripheral vision is also heightened.
- Brain: Mental activity and alertness increase for quick decision making.
- Blood: Your blood flow to muscles will increase to prepare for flight. The blood will thicken to increase the availability of clotting factors and immune system cells in case of an injury.
Even though the 3F reaction has been with us from prehistoric times, the nature of the threats has now changed! Nowadays, we are more likely to have to cope with psychological threats and stressors, like pressure of deadlines, traffic queues, delays, disagreements at work and interpersonal problems. They're not situations where physical aggression or running away are the best answers – and, yet, our bodies react as if we're facing physical danger: with the fight or flight response. As modern life becomes more pressured and complex, we add more and more psychological triggers to the list. Given how important social belonging and interaction are now as they have been throughout human history, it makes sense for threats to our social inclusion and relationships to be able to trigger ‘social fears’, which can manifest in our body with some of those physical markers of stress we just discussed.
In the case of survivors of physical violence, we can experience both of these elements: we will likely present with a physical response to a very REAL physical threat but we also have the additional stressor of the psychological manipulation and emotional abuse that usually accompanies situations of domestic violence. This is why it can be so difficult to process these experiences, especially if we are still experiencing the abuse on a regular basis. Our brain will push for trying to integrate the traumatic memory, but our body and mind is still trying to survive in the everydayness of emotional abuse.
In our daily life, we can be in and out of this 3F state many times throughout a day. This means we can be 'wired up' almost constantly – with dangerous consequences for our health: chronic stress can impact our immune system function, our digestion, our heart health, our cognitive function, and more. In addition to these implications for our health, going through this danger response on a regular basis can also manifest in our emotions. If you often feel dread, anxiety, guilt, worry, or fear, this can be related to being ‘wired up’ to be constantly ready for danger.
Pay attention to your body
If you feel you are suffering with the 3F state on a regular basis, it's important to check in with yourself and try to figure out why this is happening. This response exists and is happening to keep you safe - often, your body might be trying to tell you that you are not. There could be a threat present in the environment, or something similar in the present environment which triggers a memory of the traumatic experience. However, if you know you are not in immediate danger, but your body still feels like a threat is present, consider speaking to someone you trust, or please consult a professional if you feel it is affecting your everyday life.
So there’s just one last bit of biology we want to cover today, related to how traumatic experiences can impact our experience of the fear response. We’ve just talked about how the fear response that may be triggered in a traumatic situation. When our brain tells us that we’re in danger, it taps into one of two nervous systems. There’s our sympathetic nervous system, which is associated with that fight-or-flight response. It prepares the body to run. However, we also have a parasympathetic nervous system that controls some of our restorative bodily functions like sleep and digestion (or, the ‘rest and digest’ functions). Functionally, we’re meant to work in rhythm between the two to keep our systems balanced.
So the trick is that when we MAKE our bodies relax, only one nervous system can be “on” at any one time. For example, as we sit down and go through breathing exercises, this calm system starts up, and the sympathetic nervous system - which controls our rapid heart-rate, tension, and stress - has to shut down.
We’ve actually probably already found ways to regulate our nervous systems - and to bring the parasympathetic on*:* these are often called coping mechanisms. Eating, drinking non-alcoholic beverages, or the more dangerous self-harm are ways of returning to that state of “rest”. In this way, we’ve ALREADY been taking care of ourselves, we just haven’t known that was what we were trying to do, or always had the resources to make the healthiest choices.
But here, now, we have the opportunity to work with our body’s natural danger and calming mechanisms, those 2 nervous systems, to allow ourselves to reach more balanced reactions to stress.
So, what can help?
Grounding techniques - like we have practiced at the beginning of this session! By engaging with the “here and now”, we can bring ourselves back to calmness. Grounding exercises connect us with the present, they interrupt difficult thoughts, overwhelming sensations, and can change old patterns of behaviour as we interact with our environment.
What’s also amazing about them is that they can be done anywhere - and become easier over time.
Some of us find it difficult to focus on our breathing and it can make us more anxious to try and do that. If this happens to you, here's a little tip: instead of focusing on your breathing, if you are feeling alert or anxious or nervous, try to find something in your surroundings to focus on.
Maybe there's a painting on the wall. Focus on its frame, the colors, the textures and describe the object in your head as if you were telling someone that can't see it. Usually by the time you are done describing it in your head, your breathing is back to normal and your out of our 3 fs.
We will be looking more at coping mechanisms, calming stress, and resilience in the later weeks of this course!
The homework for this week is…
Can you identify trauma or stress reactions in your body? How does it feel when you get nervous or anxious? Some of us feel it in our bellies. Some of us get really hot. Or our mouth gets really dry. This week, try to locate where in your body you feel stress. It might help if you draw a picture, for example a stick figure of the body, and indicate or illustrate onto the drawing where you feel these reactions.
Remember, this is an investment in your own journey to recovery. Give yourself the best chance to build resilience. You can do this.