The quick and easy guide to trauma related anxiety and how to deal with it
Ok – so this is not an academic explanation of what trauma and anxiety is about but from a practicing therapist’s perspective.
If we can understand what is going on, we can do something about it.
First of all, let’s just look at the brain – why not!
The brain can be generally described in three parts: the fore brain, the mid brain and the back (reptilian) brain.
Oversees movement, co-ordination, speech, thoughts.
Our learning, thinking, self-conscious brain (the sensible stuff)
Mid brain (Limbic system)
Our alarm system, emotional and body memory systems.
Houses the amygdala.
Reptilian brain (brain stem and nub)
Deals with impulses
The arousal system-heart rate, breathing, blood pressure.
Does not think, just reacts.
As can be seen, different parts of the brain have different functions.
What happens when faced with danger (Lion coming down the street!)
We see a lion and our brain recognises it as dangerous (hopefully!) as this memory has been filed away for later use. Sensory information goes into the thalamus and from there to the amygdala. The amygdala is the brain’s smoke alarm. The information is processed in seven milliseconds and then sets off the body’s autonomic arousal system. Increased breathing, higher blood pressure and sugar levels. Front brain (logic bit) shuts down and limbic system becomes very active.
Adrenaline and cortisone are produced and flood the body – we then react for survival-flight, flight, flop, freeze or please. There is no thinking going on now, we just want to get away from the danger (lion) – or fight it (foolishly)
All well and good and should save us. But, what happens when the ‘smoke alarm’ is oversensitive.
This can happen when there is a perceived threat or danger, generally because a ‘dissociated’ memory has been triggered. We lock away traumatic events in another part of our mind, but they are still there.
We can then have a ‘flashback’ if that memory is ‘triggered’ It could be a sound, sight, smell taste or someone else.
Suddenly, our amygdala kicks in to the perceived threat and floods our body with adrenalin and cortisone so we can fight or flight the danger. But, there is no danger, just the triggered memory.
It is like an oversensitive smoke alarm going off. It does not know the difference between burnt toast and the house on fire
We are left with feeling anxiety, increased pulse, heavy breathing, not being able to think (as front brain has shut down)
But, there is no danger and it is only a feeling.
How can we deal with this then?
- Get the front brain thinking again. Do puzzles (Sudoku), read, count backwards from 1000, colouring in. Anything in fact to get thinking.
- Use mindfulness to focus and to be aware in the present. Focus on the breath or do a body scan. Do daily to enable new neuro pathways to develop.
- Get connected. Talk to someone else- to an attached figure ie partner or Try to get insight into what the trigger is. You can then deal with it.
Try my mindfulness video