Trauma: Why We Hold onto Shock and How to Release it

When we're faced with trauma we automatically draw a sharp, deep breath and experience shock. We learn to fight shock and force ourselves into action, short circuiting our natural process for dealing with trauma. It's as if we hold the breath forever instilling the trauma into our systems in the belief that it still exist. This results in stress causing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD. This phenomenon is well known to therapists and medical personnel. War veterans who stoically endured the atrocities of battle often return home to find themselves unable to cope. They may be haunted by nightmares or subject to sudden, radical shifts in behavior that cause adverse social responses or become substance abusers in an effort to self medicate. The resulting problems of PTSD are well documented. It's as if our bodies and emotions don't understand that we've survived the trauma. On a subconscious level we're constantly stressed by the belief that we must fight or flee. Since that belief exists we find ways to fulfill it transforming non-threatening situations into battle scenarios. Our relationships become sources of danger rather than nourishment.

The natural role of shock is demonstrated by the interplay of predator and prey. A deer running from a tiger in terror is in a physical condition of having all resources focused on survival. It's heart pounds. It's sympathetic nervous system is fully engaged. Adrenaline pumps through it's system. As the tiger catches it the deer falls limp, heart still pounding, adrenaline still rushing. The deer's body uses the shock of the trauma to reorganize it's nervous system to prepare for one final burst of energy and activity to try to escape. When all systems are refocused it springs with incredible power and often escapes death. The human way is to fight on, not allowing this reorganization to take place.

The trauma becomes an ongoing body belief, supported by emotional reactions. PTSD may cause a person to fly into a rage for no apparent reason or strike out in fear at inappropriate targets. Since our immune systems are operated according to the emotional messages delivered by peptide action we are compelled to find something to attack, even ourselves. Candace Pert, Ph.D. who headed the team that discovered peptides calls this phenomenon the biochemistry of emotion. Peptides are the messenger cells that deliver direction to each cell in the body telling them when to reproduce, when to suppress activity to focus all energy on survival or maintenance processes, or when to rally to fight a disease. The message is delivered in the form of emotion. It's as if the essence of the emotions you feel is transmitted to each cell which responses appropriately to the emotion and the cells specific task. When you're depressed every immune cell gets the message to operate in a depressed manner as it fulfills it function. A person or animal will often strike out at anything and everything while in a state of shock. Sometimes this includes our own bodies similar to a person in shock attacking rescuers.

Many of the most painful and deadly diseases we face are auto immune diseases. Auto immune disorders cause our immune systems to attack our own bodies destroying them as if they were the enemy. Arthritis is caused by our bodies attacking our joints. In diabetes our immune systems destroy the pancreas. Cancer results from cells that refuse to respond to signals to stop reproducing or possibly in response to signals that the cells must reproduce as fast as possible because they are in danger of being destroyed.

Trauma occurs from many sources that may be seen as no more than mild threats or discomforts. My five year old daughter broke her leg skiing. When I arrived at the hospital they rushed her into an emergency examining room. A physician approached her with a syringe. I began to feel weak in the knees and flushed. I nearly fainted although I had been calm and seemingly unaffected during the hour drive down from the mountains. This was trauma and the resulting shock reaction. Shock may result from the news of the death of a loved one or rejection from a lover. Children may experience trauma and shock witnessing a fight between their parents, or the loss of a pet or even of a toy. Trauma for children may result from incidents as small as droping a cookie in a mud puddle. They're taught early to be tough and to not mourn small losses or to feel sorrow over things deemed insignificant damming the flow of emotion. This blocked emotional flow may build up pressure until the dam bursts. Chronic holding of interrupted emotion may first present itself to awareness as a discomfort, then grow to a pain and eventually to disease. Men in particular are conditioned to shake off shock and get back in the game. Crying and grieving are more tolerated from women. This may contribute to their longer life spans.

In emergency or critical care situations injured and ailing people may be left in great anxiety by medical personnel conditioned to constant trauma. Although the anxiety hinders healing by increasing blood pressure and elevating physical stress it's often justified in a reflection of the physician's own acquired tolerance to trauma. Many medical procedures require the practitioner to be able to over ride shock responses. A surgeon without this skill would be unable to cut into a person with a scalpel or to amputate a damaged limb. Lives depend on the ability of medical personnel to become hardened in this way. A person who recognizes trauma in these situations and tries the help the victim may draw attack from others on the health care team perhaps as a reaction to PTSD in the care giver. Physicians, nurses, police officers and others who must deal with traumatic situations on a regular basis have very high rates of suicide, marital problems, alcoholism, drug abuse. As a whole these professions have a life expectancy 10 - 15 years shorter than society as a whole.

Releasing Trauma

Body oriented psychotherapy is a process of accessing and reliving trauma using body beliefs or sensations as a guide. By reliving the trauma in a safe, controlled setting the shock process may be completed releasing the body's belief that it's in danger. The body oriented psychotherapist understands the value of shock and the need to allow the process to complete. Completing the shock process relieves the fear and stress of the belief of being in constant danger.

When the trauma is completed and the shock released the effects of PTSD related to the specific trauma usually disappear. In many cases it's desirable to go through the process of reliving the trauma to provide a better understanding of human process and create a sense of self-mastery and well being that comes from understanding our own dynamics under stress. In some cases, as when the client is unable to communicate, is in deep crisis or involved in chemical bingeing, a more viable approach is to directly release the emotional charge that holds the shock process at bay.

By connecting with the clients emotions and sharing the trauma, the emotional charge may be released for her. In most cases experiencing the fear, pain, and emotional turmoil are worth while. This process can leave a person exhausted, disoriented and physically stiff and sore. A state paralleling how a person feels after going through shock from injury or emotional insult. Anyone who has experienced physical injury knows this feeling that overcomes them when the exhilaration of high adrenaline levels wears off. A parent may remain calm, performing necessary actions when her child has been injured only to fall apart after the danger passes. This is the natural trauma-shock process.

Emotional shock produces the same effect. We're taught that emotional shock is weakness although shock from physical injury is more tolerated in our culture. In our society we're taught from childhood that we must be strong in tough situations holding back the emotional clearing that follows.

Emotional shock is common and may come from many sources. A man I work with has been on his back attached to a ventilator for more than a year. He's a quadriplegic whose body is like that of a 170 pound rag doll. I asked if he'd like me to bring in a massage table so he could be laid on his stomach with the vent tube threaded through the face holder. He immediately indicated yes using a biofeedback device connected to his neck that provides his only means of communication. I enlisted the help of his live-in caregiver and his primary nurse to transfer him to the table.

With much struggle and trauma to our client, myself, the nurse and his caregiver we finally transferred him to the table and rolled him onto his stomach through a controlled and well thought out process. Blood clots immediately began to run from his mouth and/or nose as the alarm on his ventilator screeched it's shrill warning that his breathing was impaired. The source of the blood was unclear. He left his body; a survival tactic often used by an abused child escaping attack the only way possible. The caregiver, a young man, turned pale and wandered off as soon as the situation allowed. When we had our client comfortable and calm, I asked the caregiver if he was okay. He replied that he had the same strange feeling in his stomach as when he'd first seen photographs of the destruction from the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York. He was surprised to learn that he was experiencing emotional shock. I had him lie down as I explained shock to him and helped him allow his body to go through the natural process.

Before I was able to help either the client or his caregiver, I had to take time for my own shock. It took only a few moments after our client was comfortable and feeling safe to go through my own trauma process. I sat and allowed the feelings without having to do anything about them. I just experienced them, passing through them. After a few minutes I took a short walk and was ready to continue. The shock process is natural and needs no help. It's only hindered by judgment and efforting. Had I not taken this time my effectiveness would have been diminished, not only in this situation but in future similar situations. It was a traumatic experience for all involved. Only the nurse who had extensive emergency room experience was able to continue without taking time for her own process.

For my client it was appropriate to release the trauma for him, helping him return his awareness to his body. For the caregiver it was appropriate to guide him to do it himself. For me it was appropriate to simply go through it. While the nurse seemed to be unaffected, I wondered if there was a subtle cumulative effect that might appear as future emotional or physical pathology. When we finished and our client was back in his safe and familiar position, sleeping serenely, I took time to do some work with the nurse under the pretense of helping with muscles she strained in the process.

The need for post trauma processing is becoming more recognized. Children in schools hit by natural disasters such as tornadoes, witnesses of heinous crimes and rescue workers completing operations like the search for bodies in the rubble of the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City routinely receive post trauma therapy. Trauma debriefing teams are becoming common parts of emergency care support systems for professionals in high stress situations.

The effects of smaller, everyday traumas are usually overlooked. Many common health problems may be the result of these small traumas. Learning to experience the minor shock that follows these seemingly insignificant traumas can be a source of better mental and physical health. Simply experiencing and honoring your body's emotions, stresses and other commonly ignored signals may result in improved health and well being.

Written by Carl Brahe, MA and Victoria Hall RN


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