Trauma is a fact of everyday life. When I talk about trauma, I mean the effect of an external event on the internal workings of the nervous system. A person becomes traumatized when the capacity of their nervous system to cope with an experience is overwhelmed. A life event that might be traumatizing to one person might not have the same effect on another, for an number of reasons.
Differences in Individual Resiliency
Some people are more resilient than others. Individuals who have experienced early neglect, abuse, or other traumatizing experiences, tend to have less resiliency than people who have not. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study provides evidence that a history of adverse experiences in one’s early years is correlated with greater risk of disease, addiction, and early death. This makes sense, as children’s coping mechanisms are more easily overwhelmed than are those of adults.
The Freeze Response
Any experience can be traumatizing if escape from the situation is not possible. Our bodies will attempt to meet a threat through either fighting or fleeing. If these responses are not successful, our nervous system has a “circuit breaker” known as the freeze response, which is involuntary (it happens without conscious decision). The freeze response is not “bad,” in fact, it can assure our survival when all other strategies have failed. However, the freeze response can become “stuck,” particularly if it is associated with something frightening. The more terrifying the situation that led to freeze, the longer and more intensely it might become stuck.
How Do We “Remember”?
When we have an experience that is traumatizing, the part of our brain that helps us make conscious (explicit) memories goes offline due to the flood of stress hormones that is released. However, our bodies still remember the experience through a type of memory called “implicit” memory, which consists of body sensations, body movements, emotions, and perceptions. These kinds of memories may have no words associated with them, and are not encoded as being something that happened in the past. Therefore, when they are recalled, they can be experienced as happening in the present moment, which is confusing and frightening for the person having them.
You Can’t Just Talk Your Way Out of It
Somatic Experiencing techniques help people heal from trauma by helping to make sense out of these “implicit” memories, and increasing the ability to distinguish what is happening in the present environment from things that happened in the past. Please visit my website to learn more about Somatic Experiencing as well as how I use these techniques in my work with clients.