By Mike DuBose
In our last article, we defined trauma and examined how many of us (or someone you know) are haunted by past tragedies. We learned that trauma has endless categories and how it impacts people differently throughout their lives. Sadly, as I researched the American staggering trauma statistics, many children have been exposed to verbal or physical abuse, assault, neglect, and violence which follows them throughout adulthood. Likewise, adults have suffered significant tragedies such as the loss of loved ones, violent crime, divorce, combat in war zones, etc.
Trauma affects both the mind and the body. Our brain is a miracle consisting of a vast interconnected network of parts that assist us to survive and hopefully flourish as human species. It serves as a guide that signals our body parts how to function with our basic needs, controls our emotions, warns us of dangers and opportunities, and adjusts our lives along the way. Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, MD in his recent bestseller “The Body Keeps the Score” determined “Psychological problems occur when our internal signals don’t work when our maps don’t lead us where we need to go, when we are too paralyzed to move, when our actions do not correspond to our needs, or when our relationships break down.”
Trauma victims struggle to feel alive or find happiness, often just going through the motions of living. They’re out of touch and unable to bond with people around them. They feel unsafe inside their bodies as if the past is gnawing away at them as Kolk describes. When normal people face danger, the “fight-or-flight” syndrome kicks in to emit large amounts of adrenaline, like a shot of Red-Bull-Energy-Drink, to become supercharged to protect oneself and others. We read about this syndrome when ordinary citizens become unexpected heroes “running into the fire” to save someone or others who need extra energy to flee from an attacking animal.
Once the danger has passed, the rational brain sends signals to its emotional counterpart and body to shut down the response with “all clear” signals to turn off the once-needed, energy-provoking hormones. However, with many traumatized individuals, the adrenaline switch is constantly on unbeknownst to the victims, combined with Cortisol and other stress hormones being released into our bodies. Fears that were generated by trauma, consciously or unconsciously, seize and control our rational thinking. As a result, trauma often leads to a host of mental health issues like depression, anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares, irrational behaviors, avoidance of people, memory loss, numb feelings, attention deficits, irritability, anger, feeling scared and helpless, sleep disorders, loss of identity, and no purpose in life.
The traumatized may experience a variety of physical issues as well when the body is being flooded with harmful hormones. As a result, over time, many suffer from headaches, muscle aches, digestive problems, back, neck, and other pains, fibromyalgia, lowered immune systems, and high blood pressure. Jay Winner, MD in his bestseller, “Take the Stress Out of Your Life” noted, along with many scientists, “Stress can exacerbate just about any health condition you can think of.” The National Institute of Health reports stress elevates the risks of heart disease, arthritis, migraines, multiple sclerosis, cancers, depression, gastrointestinal problems, obesity, and asthma. By not facing reality and addressing the past trauma, we quietly become at war with ourselves and our immune systems.
Kolk noted, “Medications, alcohol, and drugs can temporarily dull or obliterate unbearable sensations and feelings. Some people simply go into denial. Their bodies register the threat, but their conscious mind goes on as if nothing has happened. However, even though the mind may learn to ignore the messages from the emotional brain, the alarm signals don’t stop.” And the body continues to keep the score.
Many individuals who have been traumatized try to cope and understand their complex feelings. Victims experience mental and physical health problems that cannot be explained by different medical and/or psychological experts. The pain and suffering are real to the victims, who wander doctor-to-doctor seeking relief but are often misdiagnosed or misunderstood by professionals who are treating them.
Children of trauma grow up with the notion they cannot be loved and often find it difficult to show it. Both children and adults who have experienced tragedy, survive by denying, ignoring, and withdrawing from reality. They try to push away horrors into their innermost regions of the brain to function each day. Some are able to think they have wiped it from their memory (only to re-surface later), while others relive events occasionally, and many see it daily in their dreams, nightmares, and conscious memories. The problem is that when one part of our brain is impacted by trauma, the others are also affected. These suffering regions can include our ability to mature, learn from our experiences, control our emotions, and gain wisdom since we are trapped in the past. Our brain regions are “branded with trauma” that live, sometimes in secret, long beyond the event, even decades.
The Bottom Line: Many of you reading this article have traveled down this road of unresolved, traumatic conflict that prevents you from moving into the future. Many are trapped in the past with all sorts of negative events that you wish could be erased by waving magic wands to make them disappear. In fact, some don’t recognize that their current mental and physical suffering may be tied to past traumatic events that occurred many years before.
Our next article will address treatment options to consider if you’re willing to travel towards the light of a better life to face your past trauma. Hope is possible. But it takes work to identify and resolve the harmful injury. Hang in there—more to come.
Our family’s purpose is to “Create Opportunities to Improve Lives.” Visit Mike’s non-profit website www.mikedubose.com for 100+ published articles by him, along with co-author, Surb Guram, MD, on many, different topics and his free books. You can write him at [email protected].