The human brain’s primary function is to keep us alive. It processes information and helps us make decisions. It also helps us determine if certain situations are safe or not. When we experience a traumatic event, our brain notes the scenario, the people involved, the smells, the sounds, etc. It files these stimuli away as “unsafe”.
If we re-experience any similar stimuli later on, our brain activates a survival response. Understanding how your brain unconsciously responds to trauma can help you cope.
Unconscious Ways We Respond to Trauma
As inconvenient as trauma responses are, it is our brain doing its best job to keep us safe. Our brain is saying, “Uh oh! We’ve been here before, and we didn’t like it!” and our body responds to these signals. Here are some ways you might be responding unconsciously to a past trauma:
Split-Second Decision Making
The human brain is truly a marvel. In less than one second after a perceived threat, our brains go through a series of questions to determine if we are safe. Those questions look something like this:
Am I safe? (yes or no?)
If yes, recover and rebalance
Can I win in a fight?
If yes, fight, then recover
Can I get away if I run?
If yes, flee, then recover
If I freeze, they might go away…
Am I safe now?
If yes, recover
Maybe I should play dead…
Am I safe?
If yes, recover
Can I befriend the threat to keep this from happening again?
If yes, recover
And from there, our brains make the same loop again. All of this processing happening in less than a second is remarkable! But the physical responses that it can cause in our bodies are distressing. They’re supposed to be! It’s what keeps us alive.
Hide It Away
One of the more commonly known responses to a traumatic event is for our brain to block it out. We often see this in victims of especially violent traumas like assault or rape. This is when the victim uses phrases such as:
“It was an out-of-body experience.”
“I just don’t remember what happened from there.”
“It’s like I wasn’t there for a minute.”
This is another of our brain’s unconscious attempts to keep us safe. If we cannot escape the trauma, at least we can become unaware. It’s very important to understand that this is an unconscious response. We are not consciously saying, “I’ll just hide this away so I don’t have to think about it.” It’s our brain making one of those split-second decisions.
This is a common symptom of PTSD and is directly related to our brain’s unconscious survival decisions. During the aftermath of a traumatic event, survivors still suffer from stress responses like hyperventilation, shaking, nausea, and weeping.
These early reactions fade, but in survivors battling PTSD, this sense of unpredictability can be long-lasting. It affects their rational thought patterns on multiple levels including:
Emotional: feelings of shame, guilt, fear, anger, pain associated with the trauma in an endless cycle.
Cognitive: attention, focus, memory retention, and rationalization become compromised.
Physical: muscles, joints, temperature, sleep, immune systems, and even metabolisms can be affected by trauma months after the event.
Social: relationships with friends, family, co-workers, and significant others are affected because of an overall loss of trust.
How to Overcome Trauma
Overcoming trauma takes time, patience, and loads of self-compassion. It’s possible, and it’s worth it.
The help of a certified therapist can create a safe space for you to work through your trauma. A therapist can help you find coping mechanisms that work for you. To schedule a free, 15-minute phone consultation, click here.
We can discuss which kinds of trauma treatment you are most comfortable using. For more information on trauma therapy, click the link!