Trauma – when the brain remembers what you want to forget

Feb 19, 2020 | Blog

The repercussions from a traumatic experience often don’t surface until weeks, months or even years after the event. It can be both surprising and confusing to people as they struggle to understand why their brain and body continue to react, given that the traumatic event has passed. Some people never make the connection between their current emotionally distressed state and the trauma that created it.

Petrea King writes about the impact of trauma.

Most people are in shock for the first 6 – 8 weeks after a traumatic event as they take on the enormity of what has happened.

We can feel isolated, irritable, anxious or angry for months – or years – after the event

These feelings, along with sadness, grief or feeling out of control are often difficult feelings for people to articulate or experience. Anger and irritability are often a cover for these feelings and, of course, it feels more powerful to be angry than to admit to sadness, or a feeling of not coping. However, anger and irritability can consume us and cause a breakdown in our relationships.

Hurting the people that love and support us through our actions or words is a common theme for people living with post-traumatic stress injuries.

Around 12% of Australians are likely to experience the impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in their lifetime. At Quest, we prefer to name it as an ‘injury’ to the brain and nervous system, rather than a ‘disorder’. Just as you wouldn’t expect to carry a bucket of water with a broken arm, you can’t expect your brain and nervous system to function well when it has suffered a traumatic injury.

TRAUMA SYMPTOMS

Symptoms include:

  • Upsetting memories or flashbacks
  • Irritability
  • Persistently feeling negative
  • Angry outbursts
  • Feeling guilty or ashamed
  • Difficulty sleeping, nightmares and feeling overly alert
  • Feeling anxious or emotionally numb.
  • Many people with PTSD ‘act out’, with reckless or self-destructive behaviour.

The condition occurs when people have been through a traumatic event which threatened their life or safety or they have experienced long-term exposure to trauma. It may be a car accident, a natural disaster, physical or emotional abuse, war or any number of traumatic events. Refugees, abuse survivors and people in professions such as the military, firefighters, paramedics, emergency workers, police officers and psychologists are particularly vulnerable to this debilitating condition.

PTSD IS NOT ABOUT YOUR ‘TOUGHNESS’

Many people think they just need to ‘toughen up’. However, PTSD is not about how tough you are. PTSD is a trauma to the most primitive part of the brain: the fear, memory and sensory areas. It has nothing to do with strength of character. It is literally a physical trauma to the brain, just as much as a serious injury to the body after physical impact.

When we detect danger, we secrete cortisol to prepare us for quick action. This activates our sympathetic nervous system – our alert system – and prepares us to physically meet the threat or escape from it.

Interestingly, this biochemistry shuts down our immune system. Our T-cells cannot function effectively when cortisol and adrenaline are in our system.

However, we don’t need an immune system when we’re dealing with say, a hungry bear that has invaded our cave! In fending off the bear or in escaping, we use up this powerful biochemistry that gives us physical strength and an ability to move quickly and skilfully. Our parasympathetic nervous system – our rest, digest, soothe and calm system – will only activate after we have utilised the cortisol and adrenaline.

The problem is many of our stressors now don’t require a physical response. We’re left with high levels of cortisol and adrenaline in our bodies.

If we’ve been under stress for a long time, as many people have been due to the threat of bushfire, or our fire-fighters who’ve existed on so little sleep and who’ve been under constant threat for weeks, then we may need to consciously implement strategies to reduce our stress reaction, in order to activate our parasympathetic nervous system.

It is also useful to know that cortisol embeds sensory memory – sounds, smells, textures, tastes, sight – very deeply in the primitive brain and sensitises our cells to trigger the alert system when we are again confronted by these sensory memories.

AN EXAMPLE OF THIS FACT IS SOMETIMES EXPERIENCED BY PEOPLE VISITING MCDONALDS

Apparently, the alarm sound from the chip fryer in McDonald’s makes a very similar sound to a machine in intensive care units in hospitals.

Patients, or even a visitor to their loved-one in an intensive care unit, have suddenly felt anxious and agitated in McDonald’s when the alarm goes off, signalling the chips are ready. People have reported that they suddenly feel they’re right back in the stressful circumstance of the intensive care unit – but they may not even realise where the trigger for their anxiety has come from. All they know is that their body has gone into high alert.

Some years ago, I was speaking with Richard Glover on ABC radio’s Midweek Conference about how childhood trauma can impact us as adults. A gentleman in his 60s called in with this story. When he was 5-years old, he discovered his 3-year old sister drowned in their backyard swimming pool. He told us,

“to this day, the smell of gardenias, the drone of cicadas or the floral print of a woman’s dress,”

could put him right back in that situation, as if it were happening all over again. Such is the power of cortisol to wire into our brain the sensory memories of trauma.

THE FIRST STEP IN OVERCOMING PTSD IS TO RECOGNISE IT

Symptoms can manifest slowly and often people can’t quite put their finger on what’s different. Signs can develop into behaviours that are out of character.

We may notice ourselves, or someone we love, withdrawing from social occasions or isolating themselves, perhaps we/they become more anxious or irritable or we/they lose interest in activities once loved.

Many police, emergency workers and veterans who attend our trauma program have spent years heaping self-criticism and blame on themselves. They feel it is a weakness that they’ve found trauma, or cumulative trauma, overwhelming and that, because their peers may not be impacted in the same way, it is somehow their ‘fault’. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Post-traumatic stress injuries are a perfectly normal result of being confronted with abnormal events that are deeply disturbing to the individual.

JUST LIKE OUR BODIES, OUR BRAINS CAN HEAL

You are not your brain; you have a brain

If yours has been traumatised, then you can learn about healing your brain. Research into PTSD suggests the brain can be healed through the neurotransmitters of oxytocin (the ‘cuddle’ hormone), serotonin, dopamine, anandamide, progesterone, testosterone and the endorphins, amongst others.

To create this healing neurochemistry we need to engage the neo-cortex, the higher functioning part of our brain where we access logic, reason, perspective, history, insight – and as well, we need to feel safe, respected, cared for and not judged.

We can choose to implement strategies, skills and healthy lifestyle habits that encourage brain and nervous system recovery. Healing involves re-engaging people with their higher functioning neo-cortex rather than being a helpless victim of our traumatised primitive brain.

WHAT HELPS?

For many years, I’ve been gathering research on what therapies or activities assist people’s traumatised brains and nervous systems to heal. Interestingly, they’re all activities that focus the brain in the present moment; the person’s attention is focused, the brain is quiet and fully engaged in the present, not thinking about the future, or ruminating over the past.

These evidence-based activities are wide and varied. However, they all have focused attention at their core.

Therapies include:

  • Yoga
  • Mindfulness
  • Breathing techniques
  • Physical exercise
  • Horse-riding
  • Painting
  • Relaxation
  • Various hobbies, meditation and therapies involving animals – horses, dogs, dolphins and whales.

At Quest for Life, participants are taught to manage their symptoms more effectively, communicate more skillfully, regulate their emotions and express them in healthier ways as well as learning about how trauma impacts the brain, and how healing is made possible.

With regular practice of easy to implement life skills learnt on the Moving Beyond Trauma program, the intensity of PTSD symptoms can be managed and significantly reduced, restoring quality of life.

Post-traumatic growth is possible. When we actively engage with managing our brain and body more effectively through education and support, healing is accelerated.

Being with others who experience PTSD also helps. There’s a power in being with people who share the experience of trauma – we need to be with people who ‘get’ us, including a team of highly skilled professionals who are dedicated to your education and recovery.

Participants quickly realise that the cause of trauma is not as relevant as the fact of their injury. Whether you’re a veteran, a victim of childhood sexual abuse/sexual assault/domestic violence/crime/terrorism, a survivor of an accident or disaster, you’re a police officer, emergency worker, doctor, from Defence or a witness of crime … everyone experiences the same symptoms. It’s a revelation for people to see that trauma unites them rather than the event/s which caused the trauma.

HOW QUEST FOR LIFE CAN HELP

It takes strength and resilience to work through PTSD, and Quest for Life can help through our residential programs and 1-day workshops and online support. Please call or visit our website for more information.

  • Our 1-day workshop Living Mindfully with Post-Trauma Symptoms outlines the exciting developments in understanding how trauma impacts the brain and body and the evidence-based therapies and practices that promote healing.
  • Our 5-day residential Moving Beyond Trauma program offers an effective and holistic approach to managing and healing post-trauma suffering in a confidential and safe environment.

Quest for Life knows how to help: participants experience a 32% increase in quantified mental wellbeing (Kessler 10 and PTSD 6) 4 weeks after attending the Moving Beyond Trauma program.

This figure continues to rise as participants continue to implement their learnings. Many past participants have returned to work and/or fulfilling lives.

TOOLKIT

Some of these practices can help you to calm your mind and improve your wellbeing and can be found on our Toolkit page:

Keys to help you sleep better

Some of Petrea King’s Podcasts may be helpful and can be found on our Podcast page:

  • Sarah Macdonald Nightlife – Petrea King on Post Traumatic Stress
  • Tony Delroy Nightlife – Dealing with Trauma

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