Many of you reading this may have had a strong emotional response to the title.
“But you should just move on”
“Stop living in the past”
“Look forward, not back”
All said by people who seemingly think that experiences of trauma can be consciously resolved, if we just try hard enough not to think about them, as if it were a choice to be impacted by our worst experiences, to relive them over and over again, and to react as if we were under threat.
Let’s start with that reaction, which is normally when individuals might say such hurtful, and indeed often harmful things to us. We need to understand a little bit about brains, and what happens when we are harmed, or threatened in a way which leads to trauma. It is worth saying that not all harmful events lead to trauma, a lot depends on previous experiences, support, age, neuro processing styles and a whole complex, interrelated series of factors.
So, what happens in the moment of experiencing something which results in trauma – the emotional response to a harmful event or threat? When someone experiences a traumatic event, adrenaline is released and rushes through the body. This is so we can, if need be, escape. We have to remember we have evolved to exist as hunter gatherers who were tasty snacks for a large number of predators. As I sometimes say in session, the adrenaline is so we can escape the sabre toothed tiger. This adrenaline rush causes the memory to be imprinted into the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system. The amygdala holds the emotional significance of the event, including the intensity of emotion. The limbic system is the part of the brain involved in our behavioural and emotional responses, especially when it comes to behaviours we need for survival: feeding, reproduction and caring for our young, and fight/freeze/feign or flight responses. The limbic system is what we mean when we talk about instincts, and isn’t part of the more intellectual decision making processes, indeed it shunts them out of the way, and reacts far faster than we can consciously think.
Why does the amygdala want to make a copy of the event, the emotions, the responses (including fight/flight/freeze/feign) and intensity of the experience? Is it a sadistic part of the brain? Not at all, it has one job, one it is remarkably good at – it is our early warning threat response, with the goal of keeping us alive.
A good day for the amygdala is one where we dont die.
It doesnt care if we are happy.
It doesnt care if we are traumatised
It doesnt care if we are frozen, disassociated, scared, peeing our pants.
The purpose of the memory print (a totally unscientific term I just made up) is so the amygdala can file away the adrenaline rush associated with an event with a tag marked – in this situation if I do X we dont die.
Imagine a child with a volatile, angry father. He is loud, aggressive, but gets worse if he sees his child flinch, perhaps even physically violent. The child “learns” to freeze or feign – to smile and pretend everything is OK. Developmental trauma actually changes the brain structure, as research shows
Imagine that child growing into adulthood, their partner calling upstairs to say supper is ready, the raised voice causing that same response. They become oversolicitous, smile at everyone in a forced manner, spend all evening on edge, their amygdala scanning for the threat that the adrenaline spike tells them is present. (and yes I know I am athropromothising the limbic system, I think it is easier to understand that way).
Or imagine an adult who was raped. During the rape they froze, and as far as the amygdala is concerned this response worked – they didnt die. The amygdala doesn’t care about the shame, the bully in the brain saying “you should have fought back” nor does it see any reason not to do the same again, and so the person starts to freeze whenever they feel threatened.
Just move on….when the entire limbic system is set up to keep hold of these events to keep us safe.
Just move on….when the stronger the emotional intensity, the more adrenaline floods our system, the greater the threat to life is judged to be, and so the more “present “ the trauma is kept.
So far I have just looked at the physical and chemical reasons. Just moving on makes no sense. We then need to add in things such as shame, victim blaming, the gender, race, sexuality, migrant status, age, etc of someone who experiences trauma after an event. Those are parts of the conscious, intellectual mind and can exacerbate our emotional responses. If the child is saying – but he is my father so he can’t be abusive, I must be a bad child for even thinking it, or the adult is saying – I didn’t fight back so I must be a slut, and have wanted it – then we are pulled into complex emotional responses in the here and now which in turn can harm, and damage us.
It might seem demoralising to realise that a lot of our responses, and feelings are being led by things we can’t control, but there can be real power, and healing from understanding our brain is not our enemy, and in its own, binary, and often quite sledgehammer way, it is simply trying to keep us safe. When we come to understand this we can really challenge the just move on narrative too.
Instead of judgement we need compassion – it’s understandable our threat antennas are extended, if in the past we have experienced harm, it’s our early warning system trying to keep us safe. Assuming we are safe, and it’s a false alarm, we can then provide the comfort we need, or ask others to help us comfort ourselves. This slows breathing, reduces adrenaline, brings us into the heart and now. It’s like soothing a frightened puppy rather than shouting at it. This isn’t easy, and is far from the injunctions to “get over it” in many ways it is the opposite, accepting the responses are real, are happening now, and need to be responded to with self love and self compassion. When it isnt a false alarm, when we are actually threatened and experiencing harm, it can help us to understand that we dont “have a type” or keep making bad decisions, but that our amygdala will choose from previous responses that kept us alive, over and over again – because it has one job.
Imagine a world where those suffering from trauma and those fortunate enough not to be, both responded with an understanding that the past experiences and present responses were not failures, but just human beings trying their best to carry on being human. We are complex creatures, a mixture of biopsychosocial responses and this blog has largely focused on the biological. However if we could just increase understanding of the biological we would be moving towards that more compassionate, human world.