When we experience an event which we find too horrific to absorb, we usually label it traumatic.
If we are overwhelmed, terrified, trapped or have something our brain perceives as a threat to life, then we respond in a way which aims to help us survive. If we do not then have the opportunity, circumstances, or environment to process the experience, it may become stuck in our system, which can become PTSD.
At the time of the threat our minds and body absorb many sensory and emotional nuances which we may not recall on a conscious level if we have unprocessed trauma. These details may present themselves as flashbacks when something else reminds us of that event. The reminder might be a smell, sound, taste, emotion, movement, or visual cue.
Our body and mind then assume that the event is happening again and respond in a similar fashion, to the original event which is an attempt to survive. Our survival responses include trying to run or fight, freezing, fawning (trying to appease), or flopping. When this happens the part of our brain which usually governs logical thoughts, planning and decision making is not “online” and other parts of our brain, designed for survival, take charge.
This is why we cannot reason or logic our way out of trauma, or PTSD, because the information has been activated in another part of us and stored unprocessed in the body and mind.
We may feel anxious, as our system is still scanning for danger, PTSD may affect our sleep and nightmares might arise as our minds attempt to resolve the situation. We may feel jumpy, emotional, irritable and struggle to keep away from memories or thoughts of the event or incidents. Our body and mind are doing their best to cope with these huge feelings, sensations and thoughts but simultaneously trying to keep us alive. PTSD often causes us to develop negative beliefs about ourselves which arise because something terrible happened. These beliefs then shape how we perceive ourselves and the world around us. Our esteem and mood may be low as a consequence.
Trauma therapy such as EMDR helps people with PTSD learn strategies to soothe their nervous system from the bottom up, turning off the survival response to allow them to regain cognitive functioning. The therapy helps the person to find ways of regulating these strong bodily and emotional responses.
Then it moves on to reprocessing the traumatic event/s, and helps the person stay in a place where they can tolerate the experience, so it can be assimilated into the body and mind. This can take a short or long time, depending on the person’s general wellbeing, their history and the number and type/s of traumatic experience. Once the trauma/s have been reprocessed they will be recalled in the memory, but the mind and body will recognise that they are in the past and the symptoms of PTSD should be removed. The process can feel hard, as the person has to talk about, feel and reprocess upsetting material. The benefits are in supporting a change of belief about yourself, and space for new emotions and body sensations. Symptoms such as nightmares, hyper-vigilance, and flashbacks, related to each event reprocessed, should fade as the treatment progresses. To find out more about EMDR please visit the EMDR Association website.