Trauma is a threatening event outside the mind, spirit, emotion or body’s capacity to cope at the time. We survive. We respond from the primitive part of the brain; the reptilian brain, our instincts. We Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fix.
Because the experience is so overwhelming, it is broken down and stored in fragments: facts, emotions, images and perceptions in different parts of the brain.
When we are safe and calm the mind brings the fragments together so it can be stored in the frontal cortex of the brain as a story. The story is put in sequence a piece at a time. Unattached emotions, sensations and perceptions are put where they belong in the story.
If the body is overwhelmed by stress hormones, such as adrenaline, the experience is broken down and stored as fragments, in different parts of the brain. Stress hormones inhibit the part of the brain that coordinates the brain and brings facts, feelings and perceptions together to create a coherent story. When we are safe and calm we can put the pieces together, a bit at a time. If we can’t get safe they get stored as fragments and get all mixed up together. If stressful or distressing things keep happening, and we don’t get safe and supported, we accumulate these fragments.
We carry around a bag of misplaced and mixed up pain that can be triggered and splattered unbidden.
Emotions and sensations that are not stored in the cortex as part of the memory of the event in which they occurred, become attached to current events.
“Instead of using feelings as cues to attend to incoming information, in people with PTSD arousal is likely to precipitate fight or flight reactions. Thus they are likely to go immediately from stimulus to response without making the necessary psychological assessment of the meaning of what is going on. This makes them prone to freeze or alternatively to overreact and intimidate others in response to minor provocation”. Bessel van der Kolk. “The Body keeps the Score.” 1994.
Events in the present trigger us into feelings that come from unprocessed events in the past. When we trace the feeling to the event and story that event, the feelings, perceptions or sensations can be put to where they belong. To put them where they belong enables us to interpret the present based on what is happening now rather than being seen through unprocessed experiences of past events. This makes sense of the past.
If we have not had the kind of nurture and care that helped us process our experiences, painful events and unmet needs are stored unconsciously and incompletely in the body and “implicit memories”. They are only part memories. They do not contain the story of the events because they have only been processed by the primitive parts of the brain. They are like jumbled up pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. We need to be able to process these memories so they become stored as complete or explicit memories, in the cortex, or thinking brain. Implicit memories are not recognised as coming from the past. The unassembled pieces get attached to events in the present, when we are distressed.
Whenever we interpret a situation as unsafe we go into fight or flight mode. The body responds with adrenaline and instincts, from the primitive part of the brain, the hindbrain. When we are operating from instincts we don’t think, we react. We need to get safe and calm to assemble information from all the parts of the brain. Stop, breathe, reflect, story, think.
This is what happens through mindfulness. We are teaching people to calm down so they can connect with all the parts of the brain: to connect with the body. The body holds the unprocessed sensations and feelings of unprocessed trauma.
If we have accumulated unprocessed feelings and experiences, we get flooded by these feelings. What we are feeling may not be all about the present. It might be overloaded with feelings that belong in the past. We need to recognize what we are feeling and where those feelings belong. Stop, breathe, feel, reflect before we think and respond. This is where both feeling our feelings and piecing the story of our experiences together becomes so important.
We have to get safe to put the story together; to engage the hippocampus, to assemble the information that the different parts of the brain is providing. The event is taken in one fragment at a time. To take in too much is overwhelming. This is why we tell the story over and over again.
I have heard people say not to let people tell their distressing story over and over again, they are re-traumatizing themselves. In fact they are de-traumatizing themselves by trying to make sense of what has happened. Instead of discouraging them to tell the story, we can help them tell their story in ways that help them piece it together. When we recall a distressing event we usually get it all muddled up, out of sequence. Our mind is trying to make sense of what has happened, but we get overwhelmed and confused. We can only make sense if we put it in sequence and put the feelings where they belong. Feelings tell us the truth.
Write or tell the story of an incident, a week, a year.
Write the facts (don’t worry about sentences) leaving gaps.
Come back and fill in the gaps with more detail.
Now focus on the feelings. Rewrite or retell the story putting feelings where they belong.
By listening to people in a calm accepting way, we provide them with the experience of connection that they did not have that helps them story their experiences.