Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Trauma, Biology and Hyperarousal

According to an article "The Biological Response To Trauma", it is stated that trauma is different from stress because it has long lasting effects biologically. While trauma is different from stress, the daily buildup of stress becomes the same as trauma.

Pierre Janet in 1989 recognized that overwhelming or traumatic experiences are accompanied by strong emotions. These strong emotional experiences interfere with normal processing of information and follow through action. Janet believed that hyperarousal was responsible for memory problems in people who had been traumatized as a result. According to van der Kolk & van der Hart in 1989, hyperarousal causes memories to be fragmented from consciousness. They are then stored as visual images or body sensations. At some point in the person's future, these stored fragments will then return as physiological reactions, emotions, nightmares and behavior reenactments.

Hyperarousal is a state of tension, both muscular and emotionally produced by the body through hormones during the fear response. It is also known as the fight or flight reaction. Symptoms of hyperparousal include reduced pain tolerance, anxiety, an exaggerated startle response, insomnia, and fatigue. (Source: medical dictionary - free dictionary.com ).

Hyperarousal can also make it difficult for a person to not only fall asleep but to stay asleep. Often an individual will feel more irritable or have outbursts of anger. They may have a difficult time concentrating on daily tasks and thought processes. Often, these traumatized people feel as if they are always on guard watching for danger that may be lurking at every turn. They are easily startled and jumpy to any situation that feels exaggerated and overwhelming.

According to Janet, trauma is responsible for continued exaggerated responses to other stresses that people encounter in their day. After severe traumatic experiences, the dream life or thoughts for that person takes them continually back to the traumatic moment or event. It is like the brain keeps replaying this over and over until there is a moment of resolution. Freud claimed that trauma caused an extensive rupture in our barrier against stimuli. In other words, what would be normal for a person to deal with in their day, now becomes a situation that feels exaggerated and overwhelming.

Pavlov, a Russian Psychologist, felt that the mind was a part of the living body, not as something which was completely separate. In his work, he called a cluster of innate reflexive responses to environmental threats, a defensive reaction. After repeated responses to environmental stimuli, the reaction would become conditioned as if it was the norm. In other words, having a response to some noise, or individual or event going on around a person could invoke a reaction that was more of a defense mechanism while other people would have no reaction at all.

For me, hearing a cat meow or the thumping bass sound from a car stereo, causes an immediate reaction in me. In the case of the cat meow, I want to protect and save the cat that this is coming from and in the case of the car stereo, I want to silence its source. If these sounds do not stop, I become extremely agitated as if I am reliving events that happened many years ago during my childhood. It is as if, the current event is the same as the event from a long time ago. In my mind, it is difficult to tell the two apart. For much of my life, I did not realize that there was a connection between hearing these sounds and events from my past. At best, all I could do was notice what happened in my mind and body when I heard these sounds. I have since learned how to deal with these things but for a long time, they were some very dangerous and explosive situations that I lived with.

Hyperarousal is unfortunately a state that many of us participate in during our days. Often we do not even recognize it because this state has become the norm to our lives. It affects every part of us from how we interact with others to the decisions we make and the enjoyment or growth we experience. It also keeps the body in a revved up state so that many of our body systems are working over time and keeping us ready for the danger that our subconscious mind perceives is close by. Working to become aware of our fears and embrace them is a major step in releasing all of these long held body sensations and memories. If we continue to go through life as if everything is ok, than we are only robbing ourselves of all that life can be. For these events are stored within our body at the time of impact and because of that, they can only be released from the body through the mind.

Reference: http://www.cirp.org/library/psych/vanderkolk2/
Anxiety Research (U.K.), Volume 4: Pages 199-212
The Biological Response to Psychic Trauma: Mechanisms and Treatment Of Intrusion and Numbing

*For more articles, check out the Mind Body Thoughts Blog

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