Most if not all of us will get stressed sometimes. Stress is not necessarily a bad thing; it can move us forward and protect us from harm.
Stress is the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or change – even positive ones such as the birth of a child or a promotion.
Trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing reaction to events that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope.
Of course, if we cannot release stress it can affect our sleep or start to cause problems, causing symptoms such as headaches, stomach pain, tightness in neck and shoulders.
STRESS AND TRAUMA ARE IN OUR BODY
If you suddenly hear a big bang behind you, how does your body react? Just imagine and feel what is happening in your body.
You may notice you startle, your body jumps a little, but also becomes still and focused. You turn towards where the noise came from and listen intently and scan your environment. And your body may ready itself to either run away or defend itself.
As you can see from the exercise you can feel this immediately in your body, it’s a bodily experience.
Our nervous system is in our body and it gets messages from the environment and also from our body, which it will send to our brain and spinal cord. Messages will then be sent back out into the body as movement and sensations.
AMYGDALA – FIGHT, FLIGHT, FREEZE
The oldest art of our brain, the amygdala, or lizard brain is where the fight flight freeze response comes from. It’s an old brain structure, that is trying to protect us, keep us alive.
So your response to something scary or threatening is very instinctual, you don’t have to think about it. Your amygdala, a very old brain structure, responds immediately to what could be a threat. It readies you for fight, flight and freeze.
As it is an instinctual response, you don’t know how you will react, you just will. Sometimes you may hear someone ask, well why did you not scream or run away when you were threatened?
If you go into freeze, you are literally frozen and can’t move or make a sound. Again the reaction is instinctual, you do not have a say in it.
STRESS AND TRAUMA ARE HELD IN OUR BODY NOT IN THE EVENT
What does this mean? If I am standing up in front of a group of strangers and talking to them I may feel butterflies in my stomach, my heart may be beating fast and my palms may be sweaty.
In the same situation someone else may be very relaxed and not experience any of the same symptoms. So it Is n0t the situation that creates the stress and trauma, but our bodies response to a situation.
Think of something you really enjoy, something pleasurable. This could be an experience, or something from nature or an activity.
Notice your experience. Did anything change for you?
There are of course many ways we can resource ourselves. Listening to music, walking in nature, sports, talking to friends all can help us relax and find our ground.
RESPONSE IN THE HERE AND NOW
Our bodies, our nervous system doesn’t know when something is happening now or whether it happened in the past. It responds in the here and now. This is a great thing if we want to resource ourselves. When we feel stressed or out of sorts, we can ground ourselves again by thinking of something enjoyable and our body will react.
This is also of course why it is difficult when we have experienced trauma; our bodies react as if this event is still happening. Unless we work on it and digest it, the stress response will stay in our body and we react as if the traumatic event is still happening. So it is not the event itself that contains the trauma, it is how we respond to it, the trauma is held in our body.
SAME EVENT, DIFFERENT REACTIONS
Two people can go through the same incident and for some it was stressful but they can get on with their lives whereas for others, it becomes more traumatic and affects their day to day living. Why do some people just shrug things off and for others it is much more stressful and even traumatic?
One reason is that if someone experienced difficulties early in their life, this will have affected their nervous system and their response to events around them. Their response may not be as free, open and flexible as they are still holding the earlier trauma. Later stresses will come in on top of that and may also trigger the earlier trauma and bring up more feelings of not being able to cope.
HEALING AND RELATION
To release stress and trauma, we need to also work with the body, as it is held in our body.
It is important to build up internal resources, to build up our capacity to be with so called difficult emotions. We can do this by doing things we really enjoy, that help relax us. We can talk to friends and family. But if the emotions feel too overwhelming and especially if there is early life trauma, we need someone there to be with us, to hold us in those early places. We cannot do this on our own.
Trauma that happened in relation also needs relation to heal.