Survivors of complex trauma, such as domestic abuse, have a lot to learn about what’s happened to their brains and nervous systems in order to understand what it is that they are trying to heal. The study of trauma is relatively new. It was only in 1980 that the American Psychology Association added PTSD to the DSM-3 (the guide for medical diagnosis), and then it was mainly applied to veterans who up until now were considered to have “shellshock”. In 2014, after 32 years of studying trauma, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk wrote, The Body Keeps the Score, which has had an enormous impact at how we look at trauma. It is now on the New York Times Bestseller list for the last 96 consecutive weeks. It’s interesting that a book about trauma is on the bestsellers list isn’t it? We are collectively becoming aware of the effects of trauma on the neurobiology of the brain.
When something triggers us (known or unknown), our Amygdala (part of brain responsible for emotions), acts as the “smoke detector” so to speak. It warns us of a threat, and it sets off a chain reaction in our body/brain that leads us into fight, flight, or freeze. This is a trauma response. What happens next is that we react, but without the help of our frontal lobe (behind your forehead) which is our thinking brain (reasoning, problem solving, verbal expression, memory of events, and facts). Instead, we react with our Reptilian Brain (brainstem is at the base of the head/neck) which is non-thinking, but rather instinctive. This is when we often feel that adrenaline dump (adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure, and boosts energy supplies).
When we have a trauma response we react without the help of our “thinking brain’. This is the hard part about trauma, we cannot think our way through a response because our prefrontal cortex goes “off line” and as a result you cannot ‘talk’ your way to healing. You CAN however practice new ways to respond. The brain is amazing and has neuroplasticity*, which means that it can create new neural pathways, and thus new habits.
This is what works for me and for many others. It’s called box breathing.
Inhale deeply and slowly for 4 seconds (can do 5 or 6 seconds if you prefer).
Hold breath for 4 seconds.
Slowly exhale your breath for 4 seconds.
Rest for 4 seconds.
This can become your default setting when you become triggered, but you need to practice it in order for it to become a habit. Start out doing a series of 4 deep breath cycles, 3 times a day. I took it a little further…everytime I hit a red light I would practice box breathing. Everytime the phone rang I would practice…..so forth and so on. I can’t say exactly how long it took, but my body started to automatically switch to box breathing when something triggered me. When my body automatically switches into box breathing mode, my mind is able to address what is happening sooner. It is then that I start saying to myself “It’s okay. You are okay. You are safe.” This has really helped me more than anything else.
For those of us with severe post traumatic stress (CPTSD) things can get better, but that won’t happen by just giving it ‘time’ or through talk therapy. You must take an active role in your healing. The above may sound complicated, but it’s really not. The abuse I endured was intense and my body skips fright or flight, and goes directly into freeze mode. My first response always is to stop breathing when I am triggered, which of course makes it even worse. Box breathing has given me a sense of control back, and I cannot express how life changing this can be. When you begin to heal you may feel that you are trapped within yourself by all of the uncontrolled responses and reactions that are happening around you, and within you. You are far from powerless though and with practice you too can learn to help ease some of your own trauma responses. There is hope, but you must be an active participant and student of your own experience.
I started educating myself about the effects of trauma (domestic violence) because i was absolutely lost. I had no idea what was going on within me. I had left the abuse, but my mind still felt like a minefield, and my body kept betraying me. I went to therapists, doctors, tried EMDR, but no one explained to me why I was feeling the way I was. When I learned about the neurobiology of the brain and the effect that trauma has on it, as well as the autonomic nervous system, everything changed. I was able to see what I could do in order to help myself recover from a trauma response. I realized that I was not just being pushed along by the currents, but that I in fact had some control over the experience. This was life changing for me. I encourage you to learn more about yourself and how trauma has affected you, because it helps you feel a little more whole.
**When looking for a therapist make sure that they are ‘trauma informed’ and that they are trained in EMDR therapy. For some people, including myself, I find that medicine helps me greatly. I am a healthy, clean eating woman that doesn’t like taking any medication, however, sometimes it is the right thing to do for you.
**In September 2022 I will be leading a book club on The Body Keeps the Score in the Rebel Thriver online community, The Village. (rebelthrivertribe.com)
* Neuroplasticity: The brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.