How Trauma Affects The Mind and Why She Can’t Calm Down

Credit: Aimee Vogelsang on Unsplash

Sprawled out on the sofa there didn’t seem much point in going back to bed, attempting to close my eyes and drift off to sleep. Sleep had become a distant memory, a thing that evaded me constantly. Anxiety, fear and panic would set in as my mind ached, throbbed and the room spun. Somewhere between 4am and 6am my body would finally find rest, just in time to be woken up by the children.

It was a painful slog, dragging myself to get up and going. I just had to get through the first part of the day; make breakfast, make lunches, brush teeth, get children dressed, get out the door, race to school. I was always late dropping my daughter off. I was that mother who came running in through the back field chasing after her as I pushed the stroller that held my son, warmly wrapped up and snacking on the cheerios I had managed to pop into a container as we headed out the door. No make-up, hair a tangled mess and often wearing a shirt inside out or back to front. My face bore the lines of panic, confusion and disarray. Mothers wearing the latest trends in active wear, fresh eyed and perky would jog past me effortlessly, their eyes looked up and down at the train wreck they saw fall past them. I could barely look at them. I could only imagine what this educated, intuitive and nurturing woman who had fallen from grace looked like to them.

It wouldn’t be until I had gotten my daughter through the door and started walking back home that I would realize what a disaster I was. Next step, giant coffee and off to Strong Start for playtime with my toddler in a room of noisy kids and parents that had it together (or so it seemed). I would find temporary solace in the activities of the innocent, distracting me from the intense fatigue ready to knock me over and yet, grateful to the Mom’s who would tell me they had no idea what they were doing. At that time we didn’t have a car and it wouldn’t come for another four years. I walked everywhere and I didn’t know then what I know now. It wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t crazy and I most certainly was not overreacting.

From an outside perspective it would appear that my life was better before, with him. It wasn’t.

Trauma is very real and will sneak up on you.

His words spat out like daggers piercing the flesh of previously stabbed wounds. I snapped for the last time. In need of a break, I took my children and fled to my parents’ home for some peace. The events that followed were a frightful mess. We were locked out of our family home, sent countless attacking messages and threats, had all the money withdrawn from the only bank account I had access to and no idea if we’d get through it.

During this time I rebuilt not only myself and my children but also my understanding of the impact and effects trauma, abuse and divorce have on our minds. There are still moments when that trauma is triggered today. I don’t know when it will happen or necessarily what it will do. What I do have now are the tools to survive and rise up even stronger after it.

When you struggle through something so deeply personal you can’t help but notice when others are experiencing that very same thing.

Fight Or Flight

I was sat in the coffee shop working on a new article. After re-discovering my passion for writing and the beginning of a new career my fingers tapped swiftly across the keyboard. Beside me two women in their late 30s discussed children, activities and other things I had no interest in overhearing. One woman’s words struck me as they organized getting together as a group.

She just needs to calm down.”

I turned my head, shocked. I wanted to interject. I would have done, had their conversation about her newly divorced friend continued. Her friend may have been going through an amicable divorce for all I know but the impact of a family breaking up and raising your kids alone, unsure of the future, unsure of yourself is enough to send anyone into panic.

Of course she can’t calm down! She is in Fight or Flight, I had wanted to say.

Our bodies try to protect ourselves from danger and when you are fleeing abuse or fighting with an ex over the future of your children, that danger is real. Your muscles live in a perpetual state of tightness, cortisol and adrenaline are released, your heart rate increases, pupils dilate and you sweat. When you live in a state of fight or flight your body cannot rest. You cannot calm down. You do not even sleep. Oftentimes Adrenal Fatigue sets in, causing you to stay awake all night and struggle to keep your eyelids from dropping throughout the day. High blood pressure and migraines set in overtaking any ability to manage the day. Imagine experiencing this on a daily basis, unable to break free. Imagine if the danger that causes you to switch into Fight of Flight mode never ceases. This is probably why your friend can’t calm down.

Inability to Retain Memories and Information

A thick veil of fog would envelop me and I watched as my daughter’s eyes would flit all over the place unable to settle on one spot. She struggled to concentrate, retain information or learn anything new in school. This was the girl I would take to the doctors who would explain with precision each detail of an ailment, which was almost always followed by a comment on her high intelligence and strong ability to communicate. I wanted to understand this fog and her chaos better.

Children who have experienced trauma often struggle in school and relationships. Stressors such as witnessing or experiencing abuse or violence cause the child to frequently relive that sensation as those experiences begin to intrude upon them.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Impacts Everyday Life

I have always had a deep fascination with the brain, dating back to my school days where the words on a page would float up and dance in the air. I would try to capture each word and place them in order. As a teenager I met with an education psychologist, who explained the way in which my dyslexic brain worked. She likened it to a kitchen in which you would open up a cupboard for tea and instead find a can of beans. Since then I knew there was much to learn about the way our minds work.

When a child, who has experienced PTSD, lashes out through hitting or is unable to concentrate in school and withdraws from a loving parent or caregiver, it is most likely that behaviour is a result of a damaged hippocampus. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that involves learning and storing memories. Through FMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) it can be determined whether trauma has been experienced and to what degree. Old memories blur as new ones struggle to be formed. It’s no wonder victims of abuse are accused of falsifying information when confusion and pain distort their ability to think clearly. It does not mean they are not telling the truth.

Over time this information became a refuge as I came to understand what my family was going through. It wasn’t the social worker I called to report a damaging incident that supported us, it wasn’t the courts or the GP or the crisis centre we attended. I wish I could say that it was. There was little information and support for us during that time. If anything, we simply felt crazy.

It was up to me to determine the workings of our pain and find the solution toward healing and ultimately, survival.

Healing, Adventuring and Finding Freedom

Six years later and we have found tremendous healing, happiness and what we like to call, our version of success. These days when I drop my children off at school I’m the Mom that seems to have it all together; make-up on, hair brushed and dressed to the nines. The days I’m wearing a shirt back to front, hair tangled and teeth in need of a good brushing, I drive by and drop the kids off at the front of the school. I’m not perfect, nor would I want to be. Some of the active Mom’s have even become my friends. I am now the woman that talks about PTSD, human trafficking, domestic abuse and emotional intelligence. I am the woman who has experienced life and pain and watched her children bear the weight of their own pain. It changes you. I believe for the better. We grow, we heal, we become more open and more compassionate.

In my transition to wholeness and a deeper understanding it has become a quest of mine to obtain more research and information on this area, so that we can move towards a healthier society that supports and protects those who have been abused and traumatized.

This is just the beginning.

Please note: If you are a male who has been abused and been affected by trauma this story does not negate your experience. A significant number of men and boys are abused today. I only speak from my experience as a woman and mother. I hope that you share your story too.