When we are overwhelmed by fear or horror, sometimes our brains can process things very differently to the way that they normally would – and this can cause difficulties for us afterwards.
Normally, when something potentially life-threatening occurs, our bodies initiate a “fight or flight” response, which can help us fight off a threat, or flee to safety.
When the fight or flight response is engaged, our hearts beat faster and our breathing is more rapid to supply oxygen and blood to the large muscles that we may need to protect ourselves from the threat. We also become highly sensitive to our surroundings, and see more clearly, and time can seem to pass more slowly, as we address the threat.
Normally once the threat has passed, another part of our nervous system is engaged to help us to settle back down to our normal levels of arousal, and we can go about our business.
If, however, we become so overwhelmed that we go throughout the fight or flight into a “freeze” response, things can be very different. During extreme threats, when it seems that there is no escape, the freeze response can make us feel paralysed, and separate from our bodies. People who have experienced this report that they do not experience pain in this state, which may be why this response developed.
Sometimes when people experience the freeze response during an event, their nervous systems don’t manage to settle back down afterwards, and they get stuck in the fight or flight response. This is known as chronic hyperarousal, and people in this state can experience the following symptoms:
- anxiety and restlessness;
- intrusive recollection of the event;
- episodes of feeling frozen or detached from the world;
These symptoms can develop into post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and can be very disruptive to the individuals who experience them. People will often go to great pains to avoid any reminders of the event, which further increases the anxiety. Some people report feeling like they are “going crazy” because the intrusive memories can seem so real, and can take over the present moment completely.
Trauma Counselling Treatment
Fortunately, a great deal of research has gone into finding ways to help people with trauma reactions, and there are a number of effective treatments.
Treatment usually involves learning skills to soothe yourself, so that you can start to manage the anxiety you are experiencing, and teach your body how to settle down and turn off the fight or flight response.
You may also need to learn strategies to connect with the present moment to end episodes of freezing or of vividly recalling the threatening event. Counselling may also include considering whether you are using any coping strategies that are putting you in danger, and learning alternatives so that you can heal safely.
Eventually, your treatment will involve thinking about the threatening event in a safe and controlled way, assisted by your therapist. Being able to think about the event while maintaining your awareness of the present, in which you are safe, can help your brain to process the threatening event in its normal way, so that the memories of the threat become “normal” bad memories.
Through this process, your brain will learn to put them in their appropriate place in the past, and you will no longer re-experience them intrusively as memories or nightmares.
Once you have finished processing the event, your treatment may be complete, or you may wish to work further on any other concerns that have come up for you during the treatment.
Author: Dr Catherine Hynes, BA Hons (Philosophy & Neuroscience), MA (Cognitive Neuroscience), PhD (Clinical Psychology & Clinical Neuropsychology).
Dr Catherine Hynes has a PhD in clinical psychology and neuropsychology from the University of Queensland and can provide expert help to people wanting to recover from trauma. She uses evidence-based therapies, and works with her clients in a warm and supportive way to help them decide what therapy and what strategies are most suitable to their personal tastes and circumstances.
To make an appointment, you can book Dr Catherine Hynes online, or freecall Vision Psychology on 1800 877 924 today.
- Herman, Judith Lewis (2002). Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books.
- Rothschild, Babette (2001). The Body Remembers. London: WW Norton and Co.
- Rothschild, Babette (2003). The Body Remembers Casebook. London: WW Norton and Co.
- Zayfert, B and Becker, CB (2007). Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy for PTSD: A Case Formulation Approach. London: Guildford Press.