"The Effects of Traumatic Events" | International Center for Mental Health and Human Rights

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The Effects of Traumatic Events

There is a common misunderstanding that trauma symptoms are created by traumatic events. Our brains are perfectly organized to respond to threat for our survival. When there is a perceived threat, the brain knows just what to do and does it automatically. Stress hormones are released into the blood stream to supply the additional “emergency” energy that the body needs in order to respond to the threat. We up regulate for “fight or flight.” The needed energy is utilized by the body and discharged. Once a real threat has passed, the excess stress hormones are re-absorbed and eventually, the body calms down or down regulates. This is a natural cycle that, under normal circumstances, completes itself, enabling an individual to mobilize resources in the face of stress and to return to calm. Trauma occurs when the body’s emergency circuitry is overwhelmed and unable to get back to calm.

Difficulty can arise following traumatic events when we can neither fight nor flee and our body’s only available response is to freeze. Without opportunity to release the

emergency arousal energy, the frozen residue of unresolved arousal energy remains trapped in the nervous system. The trapped energy may be understood as physiological and emotional symptoms of trauma.

Children are particularly vulnerable to becoming physiologically and emotionally overwhelmed and dis-regulated by the stress of threat. They are dependent on their caregivers to help provide soothing and safety. Their developing brains are “experience dependent” and significantly more susceptible than adults to the impact of the arousal energy. The good news is that we can intervene to help them learn to calm. Reactions will vary. There may be tears; shaking; emotional responses (feeling afraid, feeling angry, feeling anxious, feeling sad); or a sense of feeling shut down. Whatever the reactions are, we give the message that reactions are common and normal after a traumatic event.

While it is natural to want to talk about traumatic events, we gently derail conversations about the details of the event(s) to avoid re-traumatization. After we are able to reliably calm ourselves in relation to the events, then adults and children can find words for a coherent narrative. Our first step is to put our “oxygen mask” on first, before we begin. We can’t pretend to be calm; we must actually be calm. The most available method for calming is the use of breath. Take in a slow breath to the count of five and then a slow exhale to the count of seven. This simple activity will down-regulate the central nervous system. Additionally, grounding is helpful. Imagine and feel the full connection of our feet to the ground and / or our sit bones to our seat. Our breath, our feet, and our seat become anchors for calm connection, facilitating down-regulation.

To help children learn to reliably calm, we help them notice what is happening in their bodies. Once we are familiar with these calming resources, breath and grounding are easily teachable. Children and adults benefit from nonverbal creative activities that encourage self-expression, bringing the internal upset to the surface to be calmed. Productive activity is essential for adults and children in resolving traumatic experience. Engaging in the clean up efforts is actually very therapeutic on several levels. The effort reminds us we can make things better and it offers physically integrative activity. Recent research also supports contemplative practices, such as meditation and contemplative movement in restoring the mind / body/ brain to its normal regulation.

To learn about our work, you can go to icmhhr.org. To learn more about our training for teachers, school counselors, first responders, mental health professionals and humanitarian aid workers, please feel free to reach our team at info@icmhhr.com

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