“Psychological trauma is the unique individual experience of an event or enduring conditions, in which:
The individual’s ability to integrate his/her emotional experience is overwhelmed, or
The individual experiences (subjectively) a threat to life, bodily integrity, or sanity. (Pearlman & Saakvitne, 1995, p. 60)” (Giller ‘What is Psychological trauma’ 1999)
Everyone reacts to emotional and psychological trauma differently. There is no ‘one way’ to respond to an event that has shocked our system. If you’ve experienced a traumatic event in your life this will sound familiar. It is very often the cause of distance between loved ones — resentment even — as we find their subjective experience of a shared trauma unfathomable because we are so overwhelmed with our own. I have seen many people grow apart at the death of a mutual loved one and with this appalling phenomenon comes the suspicion that the subjectivity of human experience, particularly when overwhelmed by the trauma of loss renders us unable to understand each other. As this trauma is being processed by each individual, their own capacity to get in touch with a different reality to their own is all but temporarily eradicated. That’s to say nothing of the impaired judgement/ability to make decisions, guilt, anxiety and many other strong neurobiological response overwhelming the system at such a time.
I am no different. I have become particularly interested in my current reaction to the trauma that I have just experienced, and felt the need to explore further. A relationship of 5 years came to an end a few weeks ago — on mutual, understanding, respectful grounds (yes, really) and apart from the occasional unstoppable crying jag at a Fleetwood Mac song, my main response feels very physical. I am filled with adrenaline, positively vibrating from moment to moment — thoughts racing, compelled to do do do do as much as I can as fast as I can all the time. Muscles tense, ready for action. Wired.
It has been two weeks now and I wonder when this will fade, and what it will reveal in its place — perhaps I’m better off where I am! I have tried every method I can think of to bring myself back down: exercise, taking a bath, meditation, yoga, mindfulness, more exercise, reading, writing, breathing, a bit more exercise. I can find no relief. Apparently (oh joy of joys!) this is not uncommon. Time for another quote!
“Traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life but any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm.
It’s not the objective facts that determine whether an event is traumatic, but your subjective emotional experience.
The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatized.” (Robinson, Smith, Segal ‘Emotional and Psychological Trauma’ April 2014)
That last bit is what I’m particularly interested in. So trauma is on a completely subjective and therefore unpredictable sliding scale. Come with me on a little mind journey to illustrate the above point. Two people (A and B) are mugged at knife point in an unknown city at night. They both have the same experience… except they don’t because their experiences are subjective. A is deeply traumatised, experiencing flashbacks, nightmares, overwhelming feelings of fear, anxiety and helplessness that seriously hamper their daily life for the foreseeable future. B takes some days to process the fear and stress of the immediate incident, but otherwise comes away un-emotionally-scathed. The difference between these two mug-ees? A’s fundamental sense of safety and security are shaken to the core, their sense of wellbeing is torn asunder in that moment and therefore it will take more time/varied coping mechanisms to process the shock and be able to resume daily activities with some normality. B on the other hand did not feel this enormous challenge to their life state and therefore has less deeply rooted shock to process/cope with. The really fun part? Neither reaction defines A or B. Their responses to the incident and aftermath may indicate a propensity to cope in certain ways, due to the very definition of their trauma being subjective, these are not a reflection of how they may react in any future situation. There may be patterns but not direct repetitions of behaviour. Ah the complexity of the human mind and body!
So I’m not mad — everyone is different, and what I am experiencing is known as ‘hyperarousal’ (ho ho ho) or ‘hypervigilance’. A bit more about this in sciencey terms:
“A common symptom that arises from traumatic experiences is hyperarousal (also called hypervigilance). Hyperarousal is the body’s way of remaining prepared. It is characterized by sleep disturbances, muscle tension, and a lower threshold for startle responses and can persist years after trauma occurs.” (Rockville ‘Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services’ 2014)
Hypervigilance is a coping mechanism based on my sense of loss and shock at a dramatic change to my state of being. I have reacted to shock in a similar way before but never quite to this extent — or perhaps never with such self-awareness. At first it unsettled me, then it unnerved me and now I’ve come to a kind of acceptance that this is what my body is doing to cope right now. My awareness of it, and my attempts to de-escalate it are important but won’t necessarily push a magic button that will put me back to ‘normal’. The most unhelpful thing I can do right now is worry about it. Why add an anxious fizz to the already weird underlying buzz? Perhaps being aware of the weirdness is most crucial — not allowing myself to be carried away by it — remembering what it is and that it might distract me from the normal things I need to do to survive.
So my advice to myself at this stage?
- Be mindful of the humming nervous energy.
- Actively make time to do the basic important bits (feeding, sleeping) and the other also important bits (exercise, bath, meditation, reading).
- Remember that this is all part of a process and there is no cause for alarm.
How have you reacted to trauma in the past? Have you experienced this kind of physiological overdrive? Do you agree with my self-administered advice?