Trauma lives below the neck. This makes it difficult for our thinking brains to access it. That is why trauma can overwhelm us, overtake us, sabotage us, and we don’t know why. That is why trauma survivors can say and do things that don’t make sense, even to them. For example, a veteran can be outside enjoying a day with family when a car in the distance backfires. The vet may drop to the ground or run away, screaming. His traumatized body, set off by the amygdala, reacts before his thinking brain can reassure him that this sound was a car, not an IED.
A woman can also be out walking with friends, chatting and laughing, when suddenly she is shaking, sweating, heart pounding, nauseous. What happened was a man walked by her wearing a red shirt. This occurred within her peripheral vision, and she wasn’t consciously aware of it. But she had been raped by a man wearing a red shirt and her body yanked her back there, where she felt as if the rape was happening all over again.
Automatic physiological reactions like this have a very long history. When a saber-toothed tiger appeared at the mouth of our ancestors’ cave, if they hesitated, “Hmm, is this a tiger? Should I run? Get my spear?” they were most likely eaten. It was the cave person who reacted instantaneously, without thinking, who lived to pass down in our DNA this act-don’t-think response to threat and trauma.
Our frontal lobes actually shut down, go off line, when we are facing a terrible threat. This process can now be seen on PET Scans. When people say “I was so scared – or mad – I couldn’t think straight”, they are absolutely correct. It is not until we begin to feel safe again do our frontal lobes come back online.
Furthermore, when a body is experiencing trauma, the hippocampus or memory seat in the brain, cannot receive information. So trauma memories are stored in fragments. This is also why they are retrieved in fragments, usually in response to a new threat.
For someone who has experienced multiple traumas, especially as a child, their bodies keep getting hijacked by intolerable sensations and emotions. The body itself becomes the enemy, as it is battered by unbearable physical sensations; crushing feelings in the chest, agonizing tension in the shoulders, burning pain in the abdomen.
As you can see, processing and resolving trauma must involve the body. With the right kind of information and support, trauma survivors can learn to tolerate, stay grounded, and eventually be curious about the dreaded physical sensations that used to hijack them. They become thrivers. In my experience, most trauma survivors are truly remarkable people.