Updated: Sep 4, 2020
Trauma may have happened long ago, but when the response is activated by a trigger it can feel as though we are living through past abuse, shock or frightening situation in the here-and-now. It can be very confusing to be overcome by strong emotions and not know the source. Something may have triggered our trauma response; we might be experiencing one of the fight-flight-freeze-flop-fawn reactions. These are biological behaviour patterns that many animals have in response to fear. The amygdala, the most ancient part of our brain, gets activated by in response to a perceived threat. If we’re aware we might learn what triggered our sense of perceived fear so we can spot it next time. It could be a sudden yell, a dog barking, a car horn, or being in a room with people we haven’t met before. Something reminds our brain of an unsafe situation we experienced in the past, so we respond to that stimuli in the present moment as if it is very dangerous, even if it isn’t. This can be a really unsettling experience for people. Trauma is often the result of any occurrence of child abuse, bullying, racialised abuse, relationship betrayals, sexual abuse, war and violence and subsequent retraumatizations. It can feel excruciatingly painful. There is intergenerational trauma too – we may be reacting to trauma handed down in our genetics from our ancestors experiences a long time ago, perhaps even 7 or 8 generations back or more. Many of us will have inherited our great-grandfather's war traumas or our great-great-grandmother's trauma caused by famine or enslavement. Our nervous centre is the most material link between mind and body. It is physical, chemical and energetic. This is the electrical impulse centre that we can imagine vibrates like strings on a violin. If we feel safe and relaxed, the parasympathetic dimension of the nervous system plays soft, sweet music, soothing us. If we perceive a threat, then the sympathetic nervous system fires and shrieks with stress signals sent to our whole body. Many people today are living in constant low-grade traumatic stress. If you’re feeling unsteady or have heaviness, irritability, or restlessness in your body, it’s likely you may be experiencing some degree of trauma activation. It may affect us for hours, days or our whole lifetime. The temptation may be to distract ourselves because it can be so uncomfortable, even excruciating to be with the sensations in the body. We might attempt to numb through any number of dependencies, medications or addictions yet they are only coping strategies, and don't retrain the neurological response. Come back to the present moment, notice your breathing and the sensations in the body and notice the environment. See what is different from your experiences in the past. Of course, if there is an immediate danger, you can take action. However, it is most likely that all is well, and your sensitive body is still programmed by the fear of past events. Look around you; use your senses – listen, smell, taste, touch. See the wonders of the here-and-now. You might have a pot of flowers or a candle that you can rest your eyes on to focus and calm you. If you are going somewhere you know may make you nervous, you might carry a stone in your pocket to feel the shape, weight and texture of, bringing you into the here-and-now. There are ten thousand doorways back to safety in the here-and-now; find them. You can teach your body to feel safe again. Each time you return to awareness of the present moment, you gradually heal from traumatic events of the past. Just like when we exercise our muscles, we generate an inner warmth when we exercise our mind to keep coming back to the present moment. Go gently, don't force yourself, this is a practice that builds strength and stamina. T is for time; heal your past in the here-and-now.