When a person has experienced trauma, whether that is an acute event or ongoing chronic life stressors, it can change their physiology – including resetting the brain’s alarm system – causing it to become focused on survival above all else. The areas of the brain that send out signals of alarm to protect us from threat become sensitised and easily activated at the slightest sense of danger. At the same time the body is programmed to secrete large amounts of stress hormones, leading to unpleasant emotional responses, troubling physical sensations and impulsive or even aggressive behavioural responses that are seemingly out of control.
Feeling out of control in this way is frightening and can lead to a sense of being fatally flawed or damaged beyond repair – which is one reason why survivors of trauma can feel stuck and unable to move beyond their past experiences and live fully in the present. Life becomes an exercise in managing threat rather than an adventure of new experiences. Research has also shown that trauma compromises the brain area that communicates the physical embodied sensations of being alive in the present moment(1), which means that experiences like standing by the ocean or feeling the sun on your face as you take in the moment, can feel impossible to trauma survivors because their hyper-vigilant sensitised brains are always scanning the environment for threat. They may not be aware that this is what is happening, they just know they can’t relax and that life has lost the joy and spontaneity that it once had. It also makes daily living tiring, stressful and a challenge rather than a pleasure, as any encounter may trigger traumatic reactions. It also means that trauma survivors can’t just change their minds and decide to get on with life because their physiology won’t let them. This is why it is important to include therapies that work with and support the body when recovering from trauma.
The good news is:
“New brain pathways can be formed through repetitive exposure to new information and through practising movement patterns and acquiring new skills” (Robert Scaer – 8 Keys to Brain Body Balance)
This is true for stroke survivors and trauma survivors, as the brain is plastic and responds well to movement interventions that allow the body to process traumatic reactions and experience defensive physical actions that were often denied at the time of the trauma.
Through utilising the body’s own resources and receiving the right support it is possible to move past difficult or traumatic life experiences and lead a full and happy life.