Trauma responses are a natural reaction to overwhelming life threatening events. Some people can go through very traumatic events unscathed, but for many their reactions can be very overwhelming, scary and confusing because of the repeating feelings of the traumatic event being triggered and re-experienced over and over in different ways and in response to different current life situations.
A person’s sense of safety and trust are usually very disrupted by trauma, so starting to build and establish a safe, trusting therapeutic relationship is crucial to making a container to do this work within. Also forming a support network in your life of supportive family, friends, groups and community is important and very helpful to re-establish a safe social environment. Reclaiming healthy boundaries and defensive impulses that were lost in trauma is also an important part of the process.
Because the body’s reaction to trauma activates very instinctive and primal systems in the brain and autonomic (outside of direct control) nervous system, much of the work I do with people around trauma recovery includes working with body awareness so that the natural process of protection and defense can be completed and brought back to equilibrium.
The body’s natural response to danger is for the autonomic nervous system to get very quickly highly activated and puts all the different metabolic systems in your body on high alert. When this happens, it should only last for a short time until the danger is past, then the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the nervous system balances out and brings the body back to equilibrium. This high activation takes a huge amount of energy, is very depleting and is supposed to only be used for emergency situations. For humans, with complex thinking and brains, trauma reactions can get complicated. The nervous system (NS) can get stuck in this process of trying to process the traumatic memory, which manifests as repeated reminders and reliving of the trauma and re-experiencing the high levels of NS activation in daily life even when there is no actual physical danger in the present moment This is similar to how our nervous systems can get activated by high levels of stress when there is no actual physical danger. In trauma reaction, the NS is trying to process the traumatic memory in order to integrate the lower and higher functions of the brain. When this integration is accomplished, the traumatic memory will be digested as useful information and remembered, like other non-traumatic memories, as something that happened in the past and which now doesn’t have such disruptive, repetitive impact on present-day life.
In my helping a client complete this natural processing of traumatic memories successfully, I first assist clients to learn to recognize what is called the ‘window of tolerance’ or the ‘green zone’ for the nervous system. This zone is the healthy activation level for the NS. Staying within this middle green zone, by not going into hyper-arousal (fight-flight or panic) or hypo-arousal (depression, freeze or collapse), is balancing, nourishing and strengthening to the NS and all the organ systems of the body. People who suffer from PTSD often spend a lot of time in hyper or hypo activation levels which is depleting to the body and disrupts the ability to have clear higher brain thinking and functioning. Learning to recognize and then starting to learn to regulate their activation levels in order to be able to stay within the “window of tolerance creates a sense of safety and well-being which is balancing and healing for the NS.
Once this feeling of safety in your body and in your life is well established and becomes a familiar safe home base, then the trauma memories can be worked with effectively. It is only by working from the middle zone, that traumatic memories can be processed and re-integrated by the whole brain.
Starting to work with the traumatic memories directly, we will take very small steps working with triggers, memories and body memories. We will go bit by bit so as not to overwhelm and re-traumatize the NS. As we do this work we will continually bringing the body activation level back to this middle zone level, working with tools and resources you will have learned to do this, because it is only from this middle green zone that the memory can be processed and integrated.