There is a big gap in the self-help/wellness/therapy world on the topic of trauma, and how it impacts our bodies. There are a few one-size-fits-all narratives out there that suggest that all we need to work on is our “mindset”, or that we just need to feel all our feelings and they will rise and then dissipate gently. And yes, this is often the case with non-trauma related emotions…..they ‘complete’ after they’ve run their course. We may still not feel great for a little while, but usually there is a basic sense of relief after we have a cry.
But here’s the thing: trauma-related emotions (such as panic, terror, rage, etc) don’t do this. One of the reasons for this is that we experience trauma in the body, specifically in the autonomic nervous system, not in the mind. When we are under threat, our reptilian brain (the oldest part of our brain) kicks in, and we are in survival mode long before we have a chance to use our frontal cortex (the rational, reason-based part of our brain) to think “hm, what action should I take to get out of this situation”. This is adaptive…..we are designed this way to ensure survival. For those of us who have experienced PTSD, that same survival response kicks in long after our environment has changed, and our survival isn’t at stake.
I’m passionate about this topic because of my own experience with cPTSD. I spent years doing all kinds of therapy and bodywork that didn’t have a neurobiologically or trauma-informed lens. And although I progressed big time from the emotional space that I used to inhabit (my life often resembled a dumpster fire so this was no small feat!), I would keep returning to flashbacks, triggers, panic, terror, and all the sensations that go with a trauma response stuck on repeat. I felt alone and ashamed….why couldn’t I get it ‘right’? Why was my body hijacking me?
I cannot put into words the relief I felt when I learned that what I was experiencing was actually normal. And now as a therapist, I cannot stress how important it is to work with the body and the nervous system…..it is the foundation on which everything else sits.