Steve Haines, in his 32-page comic, Trauma is Really Strange, provides easy-to-understand, useful information regarding how trauma affects the brain. The illustrations, done by Sophie Standing, are simple yet informative. First, Haines points out that people can have a wide variety of reactions during and immediately after a trauma. Some are physiological responses, which include headache, muscle tension, stomachache, increased heart rate, exaggerated startle response, or shakiness. People who have suffered a trauma may also experience psychological responses, such as feeling outside their body or finding it hard to stay connected and focused on the present.
The main focus of the booklet is how people can use three statements for working with and overcoming trauma. The statements are: there is trauma, we can overcome trauma, and healing trauma is about meeting the body. These statements are derived from the work of Dr. David Berceli, the creator of Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE). Dr. Berceli’s exercises help individuals release stress or tension as a result of difficult life circumstances, immediate or prolonged stressful situations, or traumatic life experiences.
In the first part of the booklet (There is Trauma), Haines describes that bad things happen. He describes trauma as being a single event or a period of events that overload our ability to cope, what he says is “being stressed to breaking point.” He further states that tension, stress, and developmental trauma should be seen as interconnected. Developmental trauma is especially important as it deeply affects children, whose growing brains are more vulnerable to trauma, and these early events leave deep imprints often resulting in a child feeling unsafe. How a person responded to early events in his/her life becomes the default in how they respond to future events. For example, if a person learned early to disappear when a stressor occurred, any future stressor will elicit the same response.
For example, if you feel unappreciated by your spouse, it may not actually be your spouse or the situation that is causing your feelings. It may be that the situation is a stimulus that elicits a conditioned response to a root cause, something that happened before; it may be a conditioned response to a traumatic memory.
In the second part of the booklet (We Can Overcome Trauma), Haines describes how we are wired to survive. Our bodies respond to an impending threat, danger, or fear with an initial rush of adrenaline and cortisol. Once these hormones peak, the cycle of activating the central nervous system into hyper arousal mode begins. However, if a person’s body is in a constant state of arousal due to trauma, this impacts the brain’s ability to make good decisions, to react appropriately, and even to think.
The limbic system is the structure of the brain concerned with arousal and emotion. When confronted with danger, the limbic system increases in activation of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that engages in executive functions, and the body mobilizes for flight, fight, or freeze. The limbic system also includes the amygdala, which is deep inside the brain, and the hippocampus, the main area involved with emotions. The cognitive portion of the brain (cerebral hemisphere) is shut down and the ability to process verbal information cannot be activated. When stress overwhelms normal coping mechanisms and the danger response is activated, key survival systems take over and non-essential systems are deactivated. Consequently, higher cognitive processes are non-essential in times of stress or trauma. For children who experience chronic trauma, the ongoing exposure to danger (whether it be real or perceived) takes a toll on the development of higher cognitive skills.
This is why it is so important to learn to understand and deal with trauma. The third half of booklet (Healing Trauma is About Meeting the Body) deals with this aspect. Haines encourages readers to learn to pay attention to their body and learn to self-regulate in order to rewire the brain. In order to accomplish this, a person needs to slowly develop the ability to self-regulate his/her body responses, much like a soda bottle and opening it slowly to relieve the pressure.
It is important to allow body sensations, feelings, and behavior to be slowly integrated so as not to produce arousal in the autonomic nervous system. A person who has experienced trauma demonstrates core deficits in the ability to regulate physiological and emotional expressions. The person may have difficulty understanding what he/she feels, where it comes from, how to cope with it, and how to express it. The person needs to feel safe and experience safety in order not to feel overwhelmed and be re-traumatized. Thus, by using the body and body sensations to regain a sense of safety and empowerment, the person will regain the ability to regulate arousal responses and access their cerebral functions to reorder and reintegrate their trauma experiences into an explicit and meaningful framework.
Trauma Is Really Strange
Singing Dragon, December 2015
Paperback, 32 pages