It’s 8 o’clock in the morning and you are eating breakfast. When you woke up this morning you felt pretty good. You slept well and you’re actually in a good mood. As you pick up your fork to eat that first bite of food, your phone buzzes beside you. When you look at the screen you see it’s a message from your boss. Your first reaction is a sense of dread. You know you’re feeling dread because you first notice that your stomach drops. Next you notice that you’re suddenly not feeling hungry and the hunger is replaced by anxiety. Your mind starts vomiting with all the negatives. “Oh no what did I do wrong? Am I in trouble? I can’t lose this job? Why do bad things always happen to me?” And on and on your thoughts go. You decide you don’t want to read the message and toss your phone across the room so you don’t have to see it or hear it if it goes off again. You now attempt to continue eating breakfast, despite not being hungry, while still feeling anxious, and you’re still feeling a sense of dread.
The automatic behavior of avoidance is very powerful, and is used to prevent us from feeling anxiety, fear, or discomfort. Automatic behaviors, things we do without really thinking about it, are very useful in terms of getting through our day. A skilled driver doesn’t have to think about the mechanics of driving, but instead when you hop in the car you largely move about, doing the same type of actions each time without really thinking about them. This is because after repeated and consistent movements you develop muscle memory-you are conditioned to do things a certain way each and every time. This conserves energy, which the brain loves to do. We not only do this with driving but with all sorts of things every day. The route we take to work, cooking certain foods, taking a shower, etc etc. The mechanisms that work here also work when it comes to trauma reactions.
How Trauma Reactions Become Automatic
Automatic behaviors that stem from past experiences of trauma can become trauma reactions/adaptations. Trauma is such a loaded word and many folks hesitate to use it to describe their experiences because of it. There are many ways in which a person can experience trauma. Trauma is not limited to abuse, assault, or neglect but also includes disruptions in attachments, living in poverty and/or war torn country or violent neighborhoods. Remember that it is incomplete actions of the Stress Response System which store traumatic memories throughout the body that give rise to automatic trauma reactions (behaviors) that often cause survivors distress.
The Stress Response System is the survival adaptation we all have that alerts us to whether something is a threat to our sense of safety or isn’t. We are constantly on the lookout, largely unconsciously, for things in our environment that can signal threat. In fact, using the information through our five senses, our brains are constantly attuning to the external and internal environments to give clues to what’s safe and what isn’t, with only the things with enough stimulation to divert our focus to it.
When your Stress Response System is frequently activated, especially when this occurs over long periods of time and with little to know completion of action, your brain becomes very sensitive to cues in your environment. The brain moves fast as it places things into certain categories, threat vs not a threat, again this happens largely without your conscious awareness.
When Freeze is Your Default Trauma Reaction
Once threat is signaled the brain deploys certain actions, fight-flight, or freeze (sometimes it goes through all of them and other times it just chooses one) based on which adaptions are most likely to keep you safe (protect you from death). Typically what gets deployed is what has worked in the past. For most survivors of childhood trauma, freeze is the default deployment because it works. As a child you often can’t outrun (flight) your abuser or fight them, without more harm coming to you, therefore freeze is seen as the optimal choice. (Again this choice is not made on a conscious level but on an unconscious level) The result of chronic deployment of the Stress Response System and the activation of the freeze response is that as you get older, you begin to use this adaption across all domains. This often leaves folks feeling powerless as they get stuck in a freeze response while wanting to “fight” (stand up for themselves) instead.
The freeze response is powerful and useful in situations when mobilization isn’t optimal. When the threat is something that can physically harm you. Unfortunately or maybe fortunately, it depends on how you look at it, emotions are just as powerful a trigger. In fact the emotion of fear is often tied into the Stress Response System, sitting there side by side, when you experienced physical (or emotional) pain in your past. Hence fear (and its related physical sensations) along with the physical pain, create a kind of muscle memory that gets embedded (or linked) when your brain categorizes threats.
You may notice that you freeze when the emotional threat is related to a loss of something valuable.This value can be a relationship, a pet, financial, or something more. This often leads to feelings of de-stabilization with this loss. The de-stabilization triggers fear and fear is tied into the Stress Response System. The end result is the deployment of the freeze response, as the automatic trauma response to the specific threat.
4 Steps To Take To Take To Halt You Automatic Trauma Reactions
Your brain learned to use trauma reactions for survival and now it uses these same reactions for almost everything that causes you some sort of distress in your life. You are finding this problematic as it’s causing you more stress and discomfort. So here are 4 steps you can take to halt our automatic trauma reactions.
#1: Notice whats going on with you in that moment. Now here is the thing some people will notice their thoughts first, while others will be able to notice their body sensations first. Whether you’re predominant on thoughts or sensations the key is to just notice whats going on.
Let’s look at the example in the intro to this blog: The first sensation noticed was your stomach lurching. Why is my stomach lurching? Why do I feel anxiety all of a sudden? Why do I feel like I’ve done something wrong, when I know I haven’t It’s just my boss, he is really nice and never messages without a reason. Even if I made a mistake my boss and I can work it out because he is understanding. So why am I feeling threatened right now?
#2: Ask yourself why? What about this experience is causing my body to feel_______? Why did my mind jump right into the negative thoughts of__________?
Let’s look at the example in the intro of this blog: I’m feeling fragile right now because in other parts of my life I don’t feel competent. I’m having some problems communicating with my partner and I am feeling a little nervous about an upcoming presentation. I’m feeling a little anxious overall in life right now and this often makes me feel really sensitive to others comments.
#3: Ground yourself by using the 5 senses grounding technique, taking deep breaths, or using positive self talk. Make sure to remind yourself that you are safe and you know how to keep yourself safe.
Let’s look at the example in the intro of this blog: Take a couple deep breaths, it’s ok. You know that whatever my boss has to say I can handle it.
#4: Decide on a course of action with awareness and intention.
Let’s look at the example in the intro of this blog: Knowing that I’m feeling a little sensitive right now I’m going to give myself permission to read the message and process it slowly so I can come up with a well formulated return message. But I’ll wait until I’m not feeling so anxious
The Stress Response System is an integral part of our systems that help keep us alive and it wouldn’t be doing it’s job if we disabled it. That doesn’t mean that sometimes it doesn’t get in the way. Largely this happens because we have experienced past traumas that have made our systems more sensitive to threats in our environments. This doesn’t mean we can’t pump the breaks when we need too. In fact part of the healing journey is to learn how to pump your breaks so that we don’t just react on automatic when triggered.
By using the 4 steps above you are giving yourself time to allow the breaks to engage so that your reactions don’t have to be so automatic. The result is that you will find that you will become more aware of what your triggers are and how to manage them. This will help you feel more in control and empowered. Finally, as you use these steps, you will find that your relationships will improve because you will know yourself better and also love and accept yourself more because you will know who you are and how to take care of your needs (thus being able to advocate those needs to others).
Are you stuck in life and feeling like you have no other options? Do you feel like you’ve tried everything all ready but you’re still feeling unhappy, unsatisfied, and angry? Let’s explore what’s keeping you stuck in life and create a plan to help you move forward. Schedule your first session today.
These are just a few strategies and steps and recommendations! I hope you found this post helpful! I’d love to hear from you in the comment section!
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Until we connect again,