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  • Writer's pictureKaren Law

Reacting to threat - Part 2

Updated: Jan 6, 2020

What is Trauma?

The word trauma is being used so much now as awareness of Adverse Childhood Experiences has increased and people have started to understand how ACEs can impact on individuals who are not able to build Resilience, the antidote to ACEs.

Adults are also experiencing stress both at work and at home which is increasingly hard to avoid or release.

But what does trauma mean?

For a start it’s in the eye of the beholder. What can be traumatic for one individual might not be so for another.

First we have to understand how the body perceives trauma.

Trauma can be defined as “direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury; threat to one's physical integrity, witnessing an event that involves the above experience, learning about unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threat of death, or injury experienced by a family member or close associate”


So, if we refer back to my previous post I remind you that our Sympathic Nervous System is in control of this. Our rational, cognitive brain has no part in it. Our very clever body is designed to react instinctively to protect life and bodily integrity.

And then, when safe, to return to equilibrium via the Parasympathetic Nervous System. All part of the Autonomic Nervous System as a whole.

Look at the bush fires in Australia at the moment if you will.

The first person to consider is the person experiencing the trauma first hand. For example, there are people actually living in areas with fire raging round them who are having to make decisions to evacuate or not.

Their ANS will be in overdrive, as the very real fear of fire and it’s devastating possibilities is all around them. If they wake up to the fire on their doorstep they’d get out via any available route ASAP! They won’t stop to think, they’d move. But if the fire was some distance away they’d be nervous and anxious, however as it’s not imminent they would probably wait for advice.

The person who has to run for their life will get to a place of safety and at that point they need to be heard, to feel secure. How does that happen? As mammals who are designed to live in communities that is best done by having others around us to listen, to soothe, to console us, to give us a hug, a gentle stoke on our arm or back. To be in community.

But what happens if there is no one to do that? If we feel isolated, alone, unheard? Many people might get to safety but, if everyone is busy either working to save life or too busy with their own trauma, they may feel an intolerable sense of isolation. Or maybe they feel their feelings are unimportant while they perceive others are worse off than they are and so they don’t take a chance to debrief, to get some compassion and love from others.

Their ability to regain equilibrium will be affected. They do not process what just happened sufficiently and so could remain in a state of alarm, in fight or flight.

The next person is the person who witnesses the trauma happening to others. The firefighter, the first responders, the medical care providers, rescuers etc. If we see a person directly in fight or flight mode our own ANS is triggered. It’s a herd thing. If the person next to us is in danger we are then in danger. Mirror neurones in our brain react to the intentions of another when it comes to self preservation. If we see someone yawning, we yawn. It can be considered that if the other person is taking in more oxygen, we must get some too. Lack of oxygen is a threat to life so our bodies react.

So, if we witness what is happening to others our ANS is in heightened alert and raising the alarm. Our cognitive, rational brain which might say we are ok will not be heard above the alarm bells of the amygdala. This will explain the ability of the first responders to work 21 hour shifts without a break. They are in fight or flight mode too.

But then it’s not just the first hand and second hand trauma exposure. There’s third hand. The rest of us who are witnessing the fire and danger from the safety of our own home. The news is being beamed into our lives via the internet, televisions and radio, often as it is literally happening. We see the awful stark reality up front.

Not so long ago any such news took time to reach us and was not accompanied by the vivid, live images we see today. And so our brains are reacting too. How often do you find that you feel horror, fear and devastation at news we hear and see?

We’re living in times when we are hearing about and witnessing disasters, terrorism, danger and death on a daily basis. Our media sensationalise the headlines intensifying the fear.

On top of this we’re not living in such a way that we get support and compassion regularly. We’re driven to work long hours with minimal time for recreation and down time. Or we don’t have full time employment and cant afford to go out socially, take holidays etc.

We use alcohol, substances, food, etc to escape. We don’t socialise enough with others who care about us. We really don’t prioritise self care, it is often seen as a luxury instead of maintenance.

So each stress or trauma we encounter adds to the bucket. Even if we’re not encountering trauma first hand these days we’re living with ambient trauma. Eventually the bucket is nearly full and one more incident will cause overflow. A break down. We may get to the point where we feel so ‘wired’ that someone looking at us with the wrong tone of voice can send us over the edge into rage and frustration. Have you been there? Or we encounter our own traumatic experience and have no reserves. We struggle to regain equilibrium. We end up with PTSD.

It’s so important that we take steps to empty our trauma bucket regularly so that we always have reserves. That reserve is what can be called Resilience.

Next time I will share with you my recent experience of encountering a traumatic memory on the massage table. How could regular massage help drain your trauma bucket?

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