“Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of overcoming it.”
We humanfolk think we are SO smart! And yet, that very thinking gets in our way and makes things worse all the time!
When people go through a traumatic event, our bodies do everything they can to protect us. Our pelvic floors tighten, we squeeze our dorsal vagus nerve which tells our neocortex to bugger off so that our bodies flood with reactive cortisol and adrenaline, giving us the energy the body thinks we need in order to get away from the threat.
Sounds good, right? That adrenaline can be really helpful if we are trying to run out of the path of a speeding car. The cortisol would be handy if we get hit because it swells up in our cells, creating a buffer for that first pain.
But there’s a problem.
The Neocortex is the part of our brain that can reason. It goes offline when we flip into our reactive brain. If you can’t reason, you might just run in front of ANOTHER car.
When Good Self-Validation Goes Bad
We are terrible at recognizing that the danger has passed, that we are safe and that the system that makes the cortisol and adrenaline can stop now. Then, we use those thinking brains that we imagine to be so smart… to rehearse the event in our heads over and over and over again.
… which activates that whole system all over again, even though the threat is not happening in this moment.
On some level we think that remembering the event will keep us from ever being in that situation again. Unfortunately, that doesn’t actually work:
- Acute trauma is incredibly unlikely to happen quite that way more than once.
- Staying in a state of supposed body-readiness, (filled with cortisol and adrenaline,) makes us less prepared for either acute or chronic trauma. Our bodies aren’t made to hold those chemicals all the time. It literally wears out our DNA stands, leaving us sickly, stressed out and lacking in the resources needed to deal with a new threat.
- Remember how the thinking brain goes offline when the reactive system fires up? How are you going to think through how to manage the threat of the part of your brain that could run that logic string is stepping back?
You know who does a phenomenal job of re-balancing their systems after a threat? Rabbits.
Rabbits are prey. Basically, they are always in threat. Instead of carrying all of that around all of the time, they are incredibly capable of turning the threat response system off and on.
Picture a rabbit munching on grass: Happy munch happy munch happy munch. All of the sudden!!! CAT !!! Bunny takes off like a shot, full throttle adrenaline! Dives into a thicket the cat can’t get into. Threat averted. Bunny emerges on the other side and goes right back to happy munch happy munch happy munch.
Humans get it all wrong, and it harms us profoundly. We aren’t used to feeling like prey animals. After all, (in part due to opposable thumbs,) we are at the very top of the food chain. When we are victimized it completely throws us. The shock reaction of “That’s not supposed to happen!!” completely messes with our ability to groove like a bunny.
Bunnies get safe first. Then they notice that they are safe. Happy munch happy munch happy munch. This is trauma recovery: Something awful happened, and now we are safe.
This is trauma recovery:
Something awful happened,
and now we are safe.
Humans tend to think through what happened over and over again trying to make sense out of what happened. We try to find a redeeming story that makes it worth it to have suffered; We grope for anything that will explain why something unthinkable is now reality. In the process of all of this regurgitation of events? We tell our bodies we aren’t safe all over again. Hello cortisol and adrenaline! Hello Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Guess what? Even if you can find an answer to the “Why” questions, it’s not going to heal you from trauma. Somewhere down the line it is very important to make some sort of meaning out of your experience — sometime after the thought of the trauma no longer sends your systems into overdrive.
The Caring Person’s Biggest Mistake
This is incredibly important for us to understand if we are going to be helpful and not hurtful to others when they have gone through traumatic events. As compassionate people, we most often want to be a listening ear for someone who has been through trauma. We encourage them to tell us how they’re feeling, or we give them space to sit with all of the feelings in the moments, hours and days directly following the incident.
This is exactly the wrong thing to do.
Helping (Not Hurting) Others After Trauma
In those earliest times following a trauma, we are raw and impressionable. The experiences we have right after a traumatic event imprint in every part of our being. When we attempt to compassionately validate someone’s horrible experience right after something happens, the experiences freeze in the other person’s cells as trauma. They get stuck there.
Instead, ask the person to tell you a story (that has nothing to do with what just happened.) Or ask them to tell you about a wonderful memory they had, ask them if they like ice cream, or if there’s a television show they follow. Ask them about a funny movie. Get them talking about something other than what just happened.
When they look at you like you have six heads, gently ask them to trust you. As I often say in session, “Play my little game for a minute… Trust me, there’s method to my madness.”
What you’re doing is helping them channel their inner bunny and come back to happy munch happy munch happy munch. They need every cell in their bodies to recognize that they are now safe, that the trauma is not happening now, and that while they couldn’t control what happened, they can control what they do with it and when.
They need to counterbalance all of those threat chemicals with surges of happy chemicals, so that the trauma does not take root.
Leave it a US Marine!
Long before I had learned or understood any of this, I had a friend who was a United States Marine demonstrate this truth pretty dramatically. While deployed to a war zone, he had his legs crushed when the HUM-V he was riding in was flipped by the blast of an EID (roadside bomb.) He came home, completely rehabbed his legs and in true Devil Dog style, re-deployed. I was stunned.
I asked him about PTSI (Post Traumatic Injury) symptoms and he said he didn’t have any. My arrogant first assumption was that he had buried the trauma somewhere. But I knew this guy. He really didn’t seem traumatized at all. So I asked him how he managed that.
He shrugged, “Easy. I just pretended the whole thing was a video game.” Well OO-Rah. Way to Bunny up. Happy munch happy munch happy munch.
If you are struggling to find your happy munch state, contact Tiffany today. You don’t have to keep suffering.