This is the second of a series of posts looking at what trauma does to the minds and bodies of those involved. This information will not only benefit the many who are affected by traumatic events and/or PTSD but also the families and loved ones will better understand why their loved one is acting and reacting in the manner that they are.
As described in Understanding Trauma I, we are born with a number of innate emotions that produce patterned and predictable responses in all of our organs, including our brain. One is the fight‐or‐flight response which profoundly impacts, at a physiological level, our response to all stresses. The real nature of the fight‐or‐flight response means that if we hope to help traumatized people, then we must create safe environments to help counteract the long‐term effects of chronic stress.
During a traumatic experience, when the fight-or-flight response kicks in, if a person is able to master the situation of danger by successfully running away, winning the fight or getting help, the risk of long‐term physical changes are lessened. But in many situations considered to be traumatic, the victim is helpless and it is this helplessness that is such a problem for human beings. As a species, we cannot tolerate helplessness ‐ it goes against our instinct for survival. We know from animal experiments, that helplessness can cause changes in the animals’ ability to recognize and escape from danger so that once the animal becomes accustomed to trauma, it fails to try and escape from danger. This has been called “learned helplessness.”
Apparently, there are detrimental changes in the basic neurochemistry that allows the animal to self‐motivate out of dangerous situations. Change only occurs when the experimenter actively intervenes and pulls the animal out of the cage. At first, the animal runs back in, but after sufficient trials, it finally catches on and learns how to escape from the terror once again. The animals’ behavior improves significantly, but they remain vulnerable to stress. As in human experience, animals show individual variation in their responses. Some animals are very resistant to developing “learned helplessness” and others are very vulnerable.
We know that people can learn to be helpless too, that if a person is subjected to a sufficient number of experiences teaching him or her that nothing they do will effect the outcome, people give up trying. This means that interventions designed to help people overcome traumatizing experiences must focus on mastery and empowerment while avoiding further experiences of helplessness.
The experience of overwhelming terror destabilizes our internal system of arousal ‐ the internal “volume control” dial that we normally have over all our emotions, especially fear. Usually, we respond to a stimulus based on the level of threat that the stimulus represents. People who have been traumatized lose this capacity to “modulate arousal.” They tend to stay irritable, jumpy, and on edge. Instead of being able to adjust their “volume control,” the person is reduced to only an “on‐or‐off” switch, losing all control over the amount of arousal they experience to any stimulus, even one as unthreatening as a crying child.
Children are born with only an on‐or‐off switch. Gradually, over the course of development and with the responsive and protective care of adults, the child’s brain develops the ability to modulate the level of arousal based on the importance or relevance of the stimulus. This is part of the reason why the capacity of adults to soothe frightened children is so essential to their development. They cannot soothe themselves until they have been soothed by adults. Children who are exposed to repeated experiences of overwhelming arousal do not have the kind of safety and protection that they need for normal brain development. They may never develop normal modulation of arousal. As a result they are chronically irritable, angry, unable to manage aggression, impulsive, and anxious. Children – and the adults they become – who experience this level of anxiety will understandably do anything they can to establish some level of self‐soothing and self‐control.
Under such circumstances, people frequently turn to substances, like drugs or alcohol, or behaviors like sex or eating or even engagement in violence, all of which help them to calm down, at least temporarily. If you have never been able to really control your feelings, and you discover that alcohol gives you some sense of control over your internal states, it is only logical that you will turn to alcohol for comfort. The experience of control over helplessness will count for much more than anyone’s warnings about the long‐term consequences of alcohol abuse.
The implication of these findings for intervention strategies is that we need to understand that many of the behaviors that are socially objectionable and even destructive are also the individual’s only method of coping with overwhelming and uncontrollable emotions. If they are to stop using these coping skills, then they must be offered better substitutes, most importantly, healthy and sustaining human relationships, support groups and skilled professional counseling. Blaming and punishment is thus counterproductive to the goals that we hope to achieve – they just tend to make things worse.
Please pass this on to others who may benefit and please bookmark this site so you do not miss part III of “Understanding Trauma,” as we look at how we think during a traumatic event.