Despite the common belief that stress is “mental and controllable,” the stress response is actually a reflex. This means that the conscious (cerebral cortex) part of our brain is not involved in the process. When faced with an event that threatens us, leaves us feeling helpless or that horrifies us, our stress response is activated. This means that even a threat can activate the stress response.
So what is the stress response? Many call it the fight or flight response, however, there is also a freeze response, too. With the stress response, the body goes into overdrive. Muscles tense to prepare for action. Our senses become piqued – to take in more information. Our brains also have difficulty focusing during this time, probably to help us to respond to any changes in our surroundings. Breathing and heart rates increase to support the increased demand of oxygen for our muscles. Meanwhile, our digestive tract shuts down, to shunt energy and blood flow to our other organs that are geared for survival.
Sometimes, we can even dissociate – or feel like we are “out of our bodies.” In extreme cases, where we believe that death is imminent, these same process occur and yet our muscles freeze in place and we are unable to move.
In nature, animals who experience a stress response work through the cascade of biochemical reactions by the actions of fighting, fleeing or literally “shaking if off” after freezing.
In his book, “Waking The Tiger: Healing Trauma,” Peter Levine discusses the anxiety and depression that can result from blunting or blocking the unfolding of the trauma response. In our modern society, we often suppress this natural “reset” process. This is when the conscious control takes hold and can “get us into trouble” and may lead to long-term effects such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. According to Levine, it is in allowing ourselves to unfold from the trauma that we are able to move beyond it.
Trauma is confusing. It can shake us to our cores and cause us to question our safety, our roles and how we are living our lives. When the trauma becomes “stuck” within us, we can mess up in even our basic roles. Parents can forget to parent. Students can have difficulty studying. Employees can have difficulty focusing. In our confusion, in a way, we forget who we are.
The unprocessed trauma also gets locked in our bodies and can also cause physical effects. For instance, over a week after being on scene following a fatal motorcycle accident, I noticed difficulty moving my left arm. As a physical therapist, I began to investigate the muscles and low & behold, my neck and shoulder muscles were “on fire,” so I naturally began to release the tension. The next day, I had a headache and felt like every sound was piercing my body. It was bizarre. I can only guess that unlocking the tension in my muscles released some of the unprocessed chemicals from the stress response. More things then began to unwind.
Things which usually were easy for me to do were suddenly a challenge. I could not focus if there were noises around. I felt like I had ADHD and sitting still was torture. I wanted to move – I wanted to keep going – didn’t necessarily know where, but movement was imperative. Rushing became my M.O. – again, for no external reason, I just felt like everything was moving in slo-mo and it was time to speed it all up. As such, my ability to prioritize was also off. Everything had an air of vital importance, and needed to be completed NOW! Or two minutes ago.
I was driving myself (and my children) crazy. It was at this point that I decided to read about the traumatic stress response, when everything that I was experiencing began to make sense. And it was then that I also stopped fighting it. Soon enough, the irritation dimmed down quite significantly. While sadness soon followed, after a day or so my smile returned.
What I discovered first-hand in this process was what Levine described: that allowing the process to unfold, I was able to return to a greater sense of clarity. Do I believe the process is over, no, I don’t. Yet I am in a better place now than I was even a week ago.
Self-care during this sensitive time has been crucial. I have used each and every one of these following tools; some more than others. Luckily, many of these were part of my daily routine.
May we each find and use the supportive tools we each need in recovery.
These are the things that I have found helpful in this process:
- Prayer & prayer requests
- Constellation Therapy Sessions
- Awareness of my emotions and focusing on “being present” in my body, reaffirming “I am here” to bring myself more fully present
- Allowing the tension – my visualization is to see the muscles unlocking, as if I were peeling open a banana. It sounds too simple to be true. Find an analogy/visualization that works for you. Then repeat it!
- Daily Meditation (2 times/day at bare minimum)
- Gratitude: for life, for my safety, for everything!
- Salt Baths – for relaxation of tight muscles
- Ionic Foot Bath (yes, this was amazingly
- helpful to get past the insomnia – really)
- Essential Oils
- More meditation – grounding, breathing, being present
- EFT Tapping
- Exercise: Walking, Stretching
- Eating Well
- “Taking it easy” – avoiding over-stimulation
- Researching/reading to understand the trauma response