What is Trauma and How Does It Affect the Brain? The Physiological Responses to Trauma: Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn

November 25, 2023 info@roannacapes.co.uk

What is Trauma and How Does It Affect the Brain? The Physiological Responses to Trauma: Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn

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Traumatic experiences can have vast and long-term effects on an individual’s mental health. It can lead to mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety. Trauma survivors often struggle to cope with the impact of trauma on their lives. Understanding trauma is essential for the journey towards healing.

Trauma can trigger a range of physiological responses as the body and brain react to a perceived threat or danger. Physiological responses could manifest as fatigue, exhaustion, sleep problems, hyperexcitability, somatic complaints, impairment of the immune system, loss of appetite.

Emotional reactions: Traumatic incidents could elicit anxiety related feelings such as shock, panic and fear.  It can also lead to guilt and self-blame and depression. Some people might experience helplessness and anger. 

Cognitive reactions: It is quite common to struggle remembering the details of the traumatic memory. Some people might also struggle with attention and concentration in the aftermath of trauma.

Interpersonal Reactions: After trauma, some people might feel lonely and distance themselves further from their loved ones. It might create a negative impact in friendships, relationships, and family ties.

What is Trauma?

Acute Stress Disorder (ASD): Traumatic events can lead to acute stress reactions, such as acute stress disorder (ASD), which is characterized by a set of distressing symptoms in the immediate aftermath of the trauma.  Acute Stress Disorder describes reactions that occur within 4 weeks following the traumatic event and last from 2 days to 1 month.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can develop in individuals who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. PTSD is characterized by a range of symptoms that can persist for an extended period, often long after the traumatic event has occurred.

In short, the most important difference between the two disorders is duration of symptoms. 

Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) is a psychological condition that can develop in individuals who have experienced prolonged and repeated traumatic events, often in the form of ongoing interpersonal trauma, such as childhood abuse, neglect, domestic abuse, war or multiple traumatic experiences during life. It can be seen as a disorder developing as a result of long-term trauma.

C-PTSD is considered a more severe and chronic form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and it is associated with a broader range of symptoms that can affect a person’s mental and emotional well-being.

  • Common traumatic experiences (e.g., physical or emotional abuse, natural disasters, accidents).
  • Natural disasters
  • Life threating accidents
  • Physical and sexual Assaults
  • War
  • Violence
  • Domestic violence
  • Childhood abuse
  • Sudden loss of a loved one
  • Life threatening illness or injury
  • Distinction between trauma and everyday stress. 

Stress is a normal physical response of the body to balance against events that cause a feeling of discrepancy between the tasks and the perception of being capable of meeting such demands. 

Psychological trauma is caused by unusual and unexpected events that make the individuals extremely frightened, terrified, and helpless. Many events occur in human life that cause distress and sadness, but not all of them cause psychological trauma. 

In traumatic experiences, continuity in daily life is unexpectedly disrupted or interrupted. Trauma occurs suddenly. Depending on how big the perceived threat is, it renders existing coping tools insufficient to a greater extent and makes an individual to struggle more with trauma related symptoms. It carries a clear or hidden threat to the existence of the individual, family, or community.

The Brain and Trauma

To understand why ASD or PTSD develops, it may be helpful to have a basic understanding of the brain. The Triune Brain Model was developed by neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean in the 1960s, and this model enabled understanding of cognitive functioning.

The brain can be divided into three main parts, from simple to complex structure:

  1. Reptile Brain: It contains survival instincts. It manages body processes such as heart rate, breathing, and hunger.
  2. Mammalian Brain (Limbic System): It contains the limbic system, which processes emotions such as joy and fear. It also regulates processes such as attachment and reproduction. 
  3. Neomammalian Brain (Neocortex): It manages processes such as memory, self-regulation, learning, decision making and problem solving.

How trauma affects the brain is it shuts down all non-essential systems and switches to the “lower” brain system. This activates the sympathetic nervous system and helps release stress hormones, preparing you for “survival” mode: Fight-Flight-Freeze.

After a traumatic event, when the threat passes, your parasympathetic nervous system comes into play. This ensures that all three parts of your brain continue to function normally. In this way, you can process what you have experienced. However, in some people PTSD occurs and the brain remains in “survival” mode at all times. 

In the context of trauma, the role of amygdala in stress response that rapid threat detection and emotional processing can contribute to immediate survival by initiating defensive responses. However, the amygdala’s involvement in encoding traumatic memories and emotional reactions can also lead to long-term consequences, including the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In PTSD, the amygdala’s response to traumatic memories and cues remains heightened, leading to ongoing distress and re-experiencing of the trauma.

The Physiological Responses to Trauma

“Fight, flight, freeze, or fawn” response is a framework used to describe how individuals respond to perceived threats. It categorizes the various ways people react when they encounter situations that trigger their body’s stress response system. This framework acknowledges that not everyone responds in the same way to stress or danger although their response could be expected to be a part of flight-or-fight system. Here’s an overview of each response.

Fight: When there is a perceived threat, the body prepares to confront it with increased heart rate, blood pressure, and adrenaline and priming muscles for action. 

Flight: It is an instinctual response to escape from a threat or stressful situation by releasing stress hormones and activation of the cardiovascular system. The goal is to eliminate the perceived threat by removing one from the situation. 

The difference between the fight and flight response is whether the individual decides to confront or eliminate the threat.

Freeze: It is a survival strategy to reduce the likelihood of being targeted by the predator with temporary immobilization in the face of danger. The freeze response triggers the parasympathetic nervous system and might create sensations of numbness or disconnection.

Fawn: The fawn response could be considered as a less commonly acknowledged response which refers to appeasing or placating the aggressor as a means of survival. It usually develops in complex PTSD when there is long term abuse. The goal is to keep the peace or please the aggressor to eliminate threat.

The Long-term Effects of Trauma on the Brain

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to learn, adapt and reorganize to adjust to environmental changes. It refers to brain’s capability of adapting by growing new neural pathways. It could be easily misconstrued that traumatized people won’t be able to go back to normal when the experience is too difficult to process and go back to daily life. 

Neuroplasticity allows people to go back to normal or even learn and grow after a traumatic experience no matter how sudden, unexpected or shocking the event is. Neuroplasticity offers hope, as it demonstrates the brain’s potential for recovery and healing. The brain can adapt and rewire itself to reduce the impact of traumatic experiences and improve mental well-being with early and right interventions such as psychotherapy.

How chronic exposure to trauma can rewire the brain.

Chronic exposure to trauma can rewire the brain, leading to long-lasting changes in its structure and function. This rewiring is a result of the brain’s adaptive response to prolonged stress and the need to cope with overwhelming and distressing experiences.

Trauma is closely linked to the development of several mental health disorders, including acute-stress disorder (ASD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety disorders. Traumatic experiences can trigger or exacerbate these conditions, and individuals who have experienced trauma are at a higher risk of developing them.

PTSD occurs after a traumatic event. However, not all individuals with traumatic experiences develop PTSD, it depends on the severity, duration, and the meaning of the event for the individual as well as the coping tools and social support network of the individual. 

Traumatic experiences, especially when they are severe or ongoing, can lead to hopelessness, helplessness, pessimism, and despair which are common thought patterns and feelings seen in the development of depression. 

Anxiety symptoms may include excessive worry, restlessness, panic attacks, and avoidance of situations or places which could be associated with trauma responses. The individual might also become fearful of experiencing another traumatic event and might start catastrophizing or expecting the worst in life. Such thinking strategies would exacerbate anxiety. 

Childhood trauma, which can include experiences such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, neglect, or witnessing violence, can significantly increase the risk of developing depression and anxiety later in life. Childhood trauma can affect brain development, particularly in regions associated with emotional regulation, such as the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The adverse experiences and stress associated with trauma can disrupt the healthy development of emotional regulation and coping mechanisms, becomes a risk factor for developing PTSD, C-PTSD, depression and anxiety in later life. 

Schema Therapy for the treatment of Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) or a difficult childhood

Schemas could be described as deeply ingrained patterns consisting of beliefs, emotions, behaviors, and attitudes developed in early life. They shape how we perceive and respond to our experiences.

In Schema Therapy, core needs refer to the fundamental emotional and psychological needs that individuals have, particularly during their early developmental years. During childhood, cognitive and emotional functions are still developing. Traumatic or adverse events, especially when repeated or severe, can disrupt healthy emotional and cognitive development, leading to the formation of maladaptive schemas. The difficulty might arise from parent’s lack of meeting core needs of a child such as love, safety, attachment, emotional support, supporting autonomy and helping with self-control as well as the right to play and discover. It can be also shaped by external factors such as parental illness and loss, disasters, and bullying. 

Maladaptive schemas are shaped by adverse experiences in our childhood as a response to unmet core needs and adverse experiences. They might be helpful in our childhood, but they turn into pervasive patterns shaping our experiences and not involve up to date coping tools in accordance with our later experiences. As a result, individuals might get stuck with similar situations in life and be unable to cope with them. 

Schema Therapy’s role in identifying and challenging these schemas.

The goal of Schema Therapy is to identify and challenge the maladaptive schemas, replacing them with healthier, more adaptive ways of thinking and behaving. This often involves exploring and understanding the origins of these schemas, processing associated emotions, and developing new coping strategies. 

The therapeutic process and its benefits

Schema Therapy is an effective, evidence-based psychotherapy approach designed to help with long term, pervasive mental health challenges. It is particularly helpful for people who had a difficult childhood for any reason or any childhood trauma as well as people with C-PTSD. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for PTSD 

CBT is an evidence-based, short-term psychotherapy approach which is found helpful treating PTSD. CBT techniques helps to reduce PTSD related symptoms with cognitive and behavioral strategies. Cognitive techniques support with the traumatic memory, associated shame and guilt, and helps to readjust distorted world views after trauma. Behavioral strategies bring relief in managing the reminders of the traumatic event, as well as reducing any avoidance behaviors associated with the event. 

Coping and Healing

Trauma is a sudden, overwhelming, life-changing experience which individuals’ existing coping tools might struggle to respond well to manage what happened, and as a result, life after trauma could get disrupted.

Although self-help strategies such as meditation, mindfulness, journaling, seeking social support are ways of coping with traumatic experiences, it might not be always sufficient. Because trauma shatters how individuals perceive the world, it might become vital to have a safe place to process what happened with an expert to be able to move forward which could be provided by psychotherapy. 

It’s important to choose the right therapist with expertise in trauma, PTSD and C-PTSD. People who receive help after a traumatic event are less likely to develop PTSD and more likely to recover from any trauma associated mental health problem. 

Conclusion

Traumatic experiences might bring long lasting, negative changes into an individual’s mental health such as depression, anxiety and PTSD, as well as behavioral changes and interpersonal difficulties with their families, friends and romantic relationships. It’s important to explore the impact of trauma in an individual’s life to manage the difficulties arose, process what happened and develop adaptive coping tools. 

Your well-being matters and everyone has the strength to move forward in life no matter how challenging the traumatic experience was. Seeking professional support can be a crucial step toward healing and reclaiming a sense of control over your life.