Trauma has become a much used term these days. But what is trauma and what is it to be traumatised. The word comes from the ancient greek meaning to be injured or wounded. Today we apply this term to emotional and psychological wounds as well a physical ones. For psychological trauma to take hold, these wounds need to be perceived as a threat to life.
Freud defined the cause of trauma as "A breach in the protective barrier against stimulation, resulting in an overwhelming sense of helplessness"
“Traumatic events are extraordinary, not because they occur rarely, but rather because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations to life... the common denominator of trauma is a feeling of ‘intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and threat of annihilation.’” (Judith Herman)
Trauma is in the body not in the traumatic event - it is created when our physiology is overwhelmed. The situation is too much for our nervous systems to cope with, things may be happening to fast for us to adapt too, and it may happen when we are not prepared, it is too soon for our systems to respond well. A traumatic event can be defined as any experience that is too much, too fast, too soon.
If we cannot run and we would be unlikely to survive a fight, playing dead is the next best option. This is the freeze state that the creates the feelings of helplessness that are a major part of trauma. During the freeze state our sympathetic nervous system is on full as we are in danger but the parasympathetic is also on full to imobilise us. Having the accelerator and brake pedal results in no movement which may look like dead but involves a huge amount of energy.
Animals in the wild use the freeze response as a defensive strategy. Many preditors will instictively ignore dead animals, so playing dead may be a life-saver. When the threat has passed the 'dead' animal comes back to life and as it does so it will shake and tremble, allowing the energy stored in the muscles to be released.
If we are in a life-threatening event and we are imobilised, either because we are physically restrained, or because playing-dead is the only option, then for our recovery, we need to allow our bodies to move and discharge the energy of activation. This discharge can take many forms, such as trembling and shaking, shivering, crying, laughing and flushing. If we can mobilise this energy and allow its expression in the body, then ongoing trauma and its effects can be avoided.
To be continued...