Is it Stress or Trauma? Learn the difference and outsmart Anxiety
A few years ago I was walking with my dog Mari, who looks and acts like a wild fox. She has what they call a high "prey instinct": if she sees sudden movement, she's off at a gallop in full chase. A neighbor's black cat sat lurking in the shadows 10 feet away, frozen without a whisker moving. Mari walked by without noticing a thing. The cat instinctively froze mid-stride based on millions of years of evolution to not trigger the chase. As I looked back the cat started thawing and glided away far from Mari's fast, sharp teeth. We humans have these same instincts but are not so quick to discharge these automatic behaviors. Parts of us can stay frozen for months and even years after a sudden fright, loss or betrayal without knowing how to release these survival patterns.
As a child I had one of those Chinese finger cuffs. Your fingers slide in easily, but when you try to pull them out, the woven fiber tightens, dramatically trapping your fingers. The harder you pull, the more you are trapped.
Unresolved trauma works the same way. We think and worry and rush and vow to do things differently, yet we grow exhausted and seem to keep repeating the same patterns over and over, struggling against ourselves and getting nowhere. Unlike the black cat we get stuck no matter how smart or resourceful we are.
Wild animals though routinely threatened, rarely become traumatized. Unlike wild animals, our analyzing mind overrides our natural immunity to stress and prevents our nervous system from using its built in mechanism to discharge trauma and restore well-being. Most of us need a little assistance to reclaim this natural ability we share with the wild kingdom.
Read the article on trauma to discover how to heal trauma from accidents, medical procedures or abuse and free yourself like the neighbors cat, to saunter back into life as if nothing had ever happened.
Suzie Wolfer LCSW
Oxytocin, a naturally occurring hormone in the body, gives rise to a feeling of belonging and trust. It softens fear and anxiety by reversing the stress response. Produced in the hypothalamus, you can trigger its release through touch, movement and closeness with another, including pets. Even memories of loved ones or spiritual teachers can engage this physiological benefit. The safe client / therapist relationship helps clients thaw frozen fight, flight, freeze patterns in part by the activation of oxytocin.
"A single exposure of oxytocin can create a lifelong change in the brain."
Chicago Psychiatric Institute, nation's pioneer researcher in oxytocin
"In a documentary film about Mother Teresa, I saw a two-minute segment of one of her nuns in a hospital in Beirut holding an 8 month old baby who had been injured in mortar fire. He was screaming and thrashing about, his eyes darting here and there in pain and terror. The nun was massaging his chest, cooing and calling to him until his eyes locked on hers. She continued gazing at him, massaging his heart, soothing him with her voice. In less than one minute his body relaxed; he calmed down; he steadied his gaze on hers. He was still injured, but he was safe, held, and calm."
Linda Graham, MFT
"Repeated exposures to the people with whom we feel the closest social bonds can condition the release of oxytocin, so that merely being in their presence, or even just thinking about them, may trigger in us a pleasant dose."
Dan Goleman, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships
"Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, and confusion into clarity. It turns problems into gifts, failures into success, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow."
Is it Stress or Trauma?
by Suzie Wolfer LCSW
Perhaps you have experienced some of these situations
These common experiences have touched most of our lives. We make the best of our circumstances and try to move forward. How can you tell if it's just the stress of challenging life events or trauma?
Here's the critical difference.
In stress we believe that we can do something about our situation. In a traumatic event we feel helpless to change the outcome, because it was unexpected, uncontrollable, and inescapable. We feel stuck. Stress turns into trauma especially when we feel shame or guilt. The unresolved situation becomes stagnant energy in the body, and flares up when similar experiences trigger the feeling of helplessness. The result is trauma and it stays in the body.
In both stress and trauma, cortisol, the stress hormone, floods into the blood stream, preparing us for action. Constantly present, cortisol suppresses our immune system and can lead to chronic disease. It also interferes in the creation of new synaptic connections that could change stuck behavior patterns. Too much cortisol makes it difficult to be mindful, so we react rather than respond. Our reactions become automatic, like playing out an unconscious script from the past. We repeat the same behaviors even if they don't work.
In these double binds, your nervous system responds in one of three ways: fights, flees or freezes. In the language of emotion, you feel angry, anxious or numb. These states bind up a lot of energy, and over the course of our lives, these patterns become ingrained. Stored trauma keeps us from making positive changes, feeling like we keep repeating the same lesson. Each new trigger adds to our trauma load, making us less resilient. The good news is that trauma symptoms are caused by our reaction to the event not by the event itself. We can change our reaction and we can help the nervous system recover and discharge these patterns.
Fight, Flight or Freeze
Unlike our wild animal cousins, our sophisticated brains override the organic intelligence of the body. The fixed trauma states show up in observable gestures, body sensations and emotional states for those trained to see them. For example:
Fight response: restlessness, clenching, pulling away, bouncing feet, protection gestures, irritation, anger, twitching, cold sweats, muscle tension, jaws clamped, rapid shallow breathing, jumpy and reactive
Flight response: hyper vigilance, exaggerated startle response, sleep problems, restlessness, feeling trapped, sense of urgency, holding the breath, anxiety, hypersensitivity to touch, chronic pain
Freeze Response: numbness withdrawal, confusion, shock, shyness, memory problems, tired all the time, poor muscle tone, apathy, feeling disconnected, disoriented, depressed
As these uncompleted trauma patterns accumulate, you may find it difficult to be present in your life. In its wisdom, the nervous system may draw you to people and events that reenact the dilemma to try to complete and discharge these stuck patterns.
Healthy responses let you know you are releasing trauma or stress.
These hard wired responses to trauma are all useful and important ways the body recovers. Most of us have been socialized to suppress these normal, healthy behaviors thinking they are weird. Our head takes over, leaving the body's wisdom behind. The good news is that with help we can embrace the body's intelligence and not just manage trauma, but recover.
Talking about it may NOT help.
Common sense would suggest that we should talk about these painful experiences. However talking about trauma can actually make our feelings of helplessness more intense, and reinforce our dilemma. The imprint of the trauma is buried deep in the brain nowhere near the language center of the brain so talking rarely discharges these patterns. Many people find that talk about it over and over again, they feel worse with every telling. I've noticed that combat veterans instinctively avoid talking about their traumatic active duty experiences. They either to shut down or can re-enact them without ever intending to do so.
"Sarah"and her birth experience
"Sarah" had been working with me for a few months when she decided she wanted to try the Somatic Experiencing approach. She had been having feelings of anxiety alternating with feeling too busy and then tired and unmotivated. She felt she was a good mother to her 3 teenage children, but felt as if she was just going through the motions of her life and her job.
She noticed she tended to keep people at arm's length and wondered if being so busy was an unconscious strategy to avoid something. In the initial Somatic Experiencing sessions, she learned how to observe body sensations and stay with them as they "thresholded" and then discharged. She noticed an amazing, but common result of doing Somatic Experiencing: she felt calmer and more balanced and colors looked brighter. (This results from accessing the calming effect of the parasympathetic nervous system, relaxing chronic tension in the eye muscles and effectiveness of the optic nerve).
In one of her last sessions, Sarah came in particularly tired and disjointed feeling. As she observed the sensations in her body she said "I just feel kind of numb, like I've been anaesthetized." She observed her body while it seemed like relatively little was happening. I helped her stay focused on the "nothing" that was going on.
Finally she started to feel a new sensation. Without going into all the details, she was re-living her birth as her little infant body inertly passed through the birth process as a life less object. "I have the feeling of needing someone to touch me, but no one is noticing or perhaps caring. . . . Then I feel this anger go through my body, and something in me decides to never need or want anyone. I will be the one to take care of myself."
She continued to observe and felt a huge sense of relief as she felt surrounded by a palpable presence of light and love, which she interpreted as an angelic presence that has comforted her throughout her life, when she felt people had let her down.
Afterward, she realized how touch deprived she felt and unconsciously placed her right hand tenderly on her upper chest. A gentle smile came to her lips as she started to release a small part of her lifelong pattern of being fiercely independent.
She realized she wasn't broken or crazy. She experienced the organic wisdom of her body and how it was only trying to protect her instinctively. This self-protection had been making decisions for her before she could talk or think.
Sarah brought the trauma of being anaesthetized during birth, and then isolated after birth into conscious awareness, a common procedure at the time. She safely relived the experience without feeling helpless. In a safe, supportive environment using Somatic Experiencing, she upgraded this old program for a new more alive engagement in life.
After that session, she started to notice the body sensations that arose when people invited her for coffee, or if someone misunderstood her. She could feel a slight stiffening in her muscles that reminded her to observe rather than act on this deeply imbedded instinct. And after a while she started saying "yes" to life more often. She was optimistic that she could work through this life long pattern, byobserving her body and letting these impulses arise, and naturally complete, freeing her to choose instead of react without thinking.
What you can do to support the organic wisdom of your body.
Saying "Yes" to Life instead of playing it safe.