We are designed to cope with stress in short bursts. However, with prolonged exposure, our body’s physiological system pivots into survival mode and acts as a kind of tachometer, keeping the score along our chosen path towards either illness or sustained wellbeing. In this state, we are prone to subconsciously triggered reactions that can erode and distort the brain’s ability to process emotional, social, and environmental data. So a neutral facial expression, say, in a social setting can be perceived as threatening and, conversely, an innocent smile can arouse suspicion or signal danger.
We are, so to speak, permanently on alert and continuously second-guessing even the most straightforward of thought processes. The traumatised brain develops very differently from one nurtured in a safe, trust-building environment. Like the rings in the trunk of a tree, despite years of layered growth, the formative core will retain a sense of restless anxiety. This form of anxiety can be triggered by events that would normally appear insignificant to the uninitiated and instantly escalate inside the mind of the subject with the merest flicker of a neuron.
“I get nervous when I don’t get nervous. If I’m nervous I know I’m going to have a good show”– Beyonce Knowles
This constant flip-flopping between hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity to stimuli has serious sociological implications we should all be aware of, for ourself and those around us. A traumatised person dealing with it may well have lost the capacity to objectively process speech (conversation) and other auditory data. Rather like people living in a war zone where the sound of bombs landing and exploding becomes normalised. The protracted threat makes the nervous system become erratic and dysregulated as it “learns” to detect if the bomb is coming towards (danger) or moving away from (safety).
“Our nervous system has evolved with very effective power-tools to help us cope with today’s challenges. They’re called emotions”
Through a cascade of biological reactions, the body is communicating with the brain about what it is sensing in the immediate environment. Great in those long-ago days when there were dangerous beasts constantly on the prowl but potentially problematic for modern life; bombs or no. Polyvagal Theory describes how we are biologically wired for social engagement, evolved to connect for safety, cultivation and sensemaking. Protracted stress and trauma dysregulates this part of our nervous system and substitutes it with sub-optimal survival strategies (“lone wolf” behaviour). In this way of being the range of perceived life choices is ever-narrowing to the point of “the world be damned .. I’ll do it by myself!” Or worse still, we simply give up.
Power-Tools for Wellbeing
Most neuroscientists are of the view there is no difference between social or physical pain in terms of brain function, affirming the notion that medical distinction between mind and body is, let’s say, not helpful in a systemic sense. Under normal circumstances, the way our body feels and the associated emotional states are a guide to deeper awareness. Lifelong emotional balance is learned naturally in early childhood through a process known as co-regulation.
A baby is born without a fully developed faculty for language. So it learns to co-regulate through the primary caregiver and cues from the environment in which grows up. A traumatised child will develop a survival mentality which remains active even in a safe environment throughout adulthood and across their entire lifespan.
Our emotions, if we embrace them through mindful practice, will always help us. They are nature’s power-tools for dealing with the ups and downs of life. They’re not demons to be confronted. They’re our best friend who always turns up to the co-regulation party, like a benevolent genie, just to say “hi, how you doing?” Whenever they do, they’re just answering a subconscious cry for help from our nervous system and our response should be: “thanks for coming. Now that you’re here, let’s do this together!”