The Mind and Body's Response to Trauma


We all know the feeling - that moment when the heart begins to race, the breath starts to speed up, and the body begins to feel hot and clammy. It’s that moment when all that we can focus on is the single thing in front of us, as everything else seems to fade away. This response in our mind and body can be triggered by many things. From a shameful moment in front of classmates or colleagues, stumbling across a wild animal while camping, to facing someone who has abused or exploited you. No matter what the trigger may be, the brain has identified a danger, launching the body into survival mode.


Many people have heard of the “fight or flight” response in moments such as these, however the connection between the mind and body is still often overlooked in the ongoing effects of trauma. However, in order to better understand the ongoing effects, it is important to have a basic understanding of what exactly happens during that “fight or flight” experience.


Our brain has a built in alarm system, called the amygdala, that becomes activated when it detects a potentially dangerous external trigger. This trigger could be either a possible new threat that the brain associates with a previous danger; or it could be a person, place, or thing that it has already experienced and labeled as dangerous. Either way, once the alarm system has been activated, it sends a message to the logical part of our brain - our prefrontal cortex. The logical part then either identifies it as non-threatening, deactivating the alarm system, or it registers it as a threat. If the trigger is registered as a threat, our body enters “fight or flight” mode, shutting off any non-essential parts of our brain in order to send all the energy to the auto-pilot and survival parts - the cerebellum and brain stem. Relying on natural survival instincts, the brain and body will respond in a way that it perceives the highest likelihood of survival. The most common behavioral responses are to fight, flee, freeze, or fawn.


We see many of these in play when we think about the examples previously shared. It is common to either freeze or run away when faced with an embarrassing or shameful moment, and depending on the animal you come across, fighting it off may be the best chance to survive. It is when we deal with more complex and ongoing traumas, such as abusive relationships or exploitation, that the less discussed response of ‘fawn’ comes into play. While the other three responses may also arise, it is common to comply with the situation in order to simply get through the experience. This response does not make the situation any less traumatic; and in the case of abuse or exploitation, it does not equal consent. In fact, due to our society’s misunderstanding of this response, it can often lead to more emotional and psychological trauma long-term.


Many people who experience an occasional “fight or flight” moment are often able to continue on with their life with little long-term effects. However, the more frequent these experiences, the more the brain begins to change. The brain’s alarm system may become hyper-sensitive, going off more frequently as it begins to perceive the world as a dangerous place. For some, the alarm may be in a near continual state of activation, ultimately causing them to live within a constant state of “fight or flight”.


Living in this state often manifests itself in many ways, including bringing on anxiety, depression, hyper vigilance, anger, and over-sensitivities, among others. In a world that is quick to treat the symptoms rather than the root cause, many of the experiences that actually lead to these emotional and mental struggles go unprocessed and untreated. There are many ways to address the psychosomatic and psychological effects of trauma, both inside and outside of a therapy office.


Many yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practices work to calm the body’s response system, which overtime helps the brain to restore itself back to a calm baseline state. By bringing attention to the body and creating a safe space within, yoga and meditation - particularly imagery - ease symptoms of hyperarousal. It is important to always be mindful of the response of your body! Depending on your particular traumas, certain yoga poses or meditation prompts may be triggering, and therefore it is best to seek out a trauma-informed yoga teacher or practitioner to help guide you in your healing.


Additionally, for chronic, ongoing, or severe traumatic experiences and resulting symptoms, seeking professional help from a psychotherapist is highly recommended. Many counselors practice mind-body techniques that are directly geared toward addressing the symptoms and underlying root causes together. Therapeutic approaches such as Brainspotting, EMDR, hypnotherapy, somatic healing, and others are frequently used to process and heal from traumas.


When on a healing journey from trauma, it is most important to remember that you are not alone. Many have walked that path before you, and countless others are walking it with you. This is not a journey that is meant to be walked alone. Make sure that you find a strong support team, including family, friends, and professionals to help you on your way.


If you need help getting started, I would love to work with you or help connect you to those who can be supports on your journey!

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Bethany Lato, M.S., LPC-IT

bethany@adeeperwellcounseling.com

414.301.3577

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