When the Frightened become Frightening: Transcending Trauma

November 22, 2017






Trauma can be described as experiences or situations that are deeply distressing and or disturbing and can have long lasting implications, overwhelming the mind-body system. For example when a person is under attack, they may feel fear. The body is primed to go into a state of self preservation- survival mode.


Trauma can be experienced through witnessing acts of violence or being at the receiving end of them; war, death, loss, birth, neglect, abuse of any kind- sexual, physical, emotional, bullying, an accident. Anything which overwhelms a persons’ mental and physical capacities. Trauma response is a very individual yet universal thing.


Trauma creates an imprint not just mentally but physically. It holds the wounds that can’t be seen.




Trauma is a primitive survival response that results in flight, fight, fright, freeze, faint. Trauma- an emotional response manifests physically through various ailments, back aches, neck aches, migraines, leg pains, tension, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, heaviness, lethargy, lack of concentration, fogginess, weakened immune system often leading to infections and colds, compromised hormonal, digestive and nervous systems- (you name it!) all leading to vast complex suffering. When the body is out of sync there is massive dysregulation.  Core functions of eating, sleeping and breathing can become so disturbed from the distress and cause further confusion, panic and anxiety, anger- even a feeling of being out of control.


Traumatic experiences can cause intense feelings of helplessness often leading to hopelessness. When the body has felt under attack it automatically unconsciously will go into ‘protect’ mode.  The problem later can be (especially with prolonged exposure to trauma) that the body becomes habituated to this way of reacting even when it is unnecessary. This is where it becomes necessary to build resilience to trauma through embodiment- two such tools for healing are breathwork and yoga combined with meditation. Ample evidenced based research is now available on the truly healing aspects of processing trauma in this way. Still, the power and benefits of which to the individual and society as a whole are deeply underrated and under utilised.


According to Van Der Kolk (2014) Trauma can damage the Insula – a part of the brain that registers changes in the body. This can be devastating as it can lead to an inability to experience joy, love and happiness. More so trauma damages the prefrontal cortex another key part of the brain which is critical in self regulation and managing our emotions. The brain enters a heightened state of arousal.


Lasting effects of trauma can include, depression, anxiety, phobias, a need to control (OCD), anger, defiance, panic, mistrust, dissociation, suicidal feelings, eating and sleeping disorders and many others.




Let’s look at the example of someone exposed to trauma and frightening experiences. Take a child at birth who has been exposed to traumatic intervention – anaesthetic, forceps, caesarean and separated from the mother immediately delaying the critical period of attachment and soothing required. This child may later on go on to develop a huge mistrust of the world, feel constantly under attack, in a state of terror and fear. Perhaps no one even knows or understands that as an adult the response they are feeling or their loved one is feeling is in relation to such an early non verbal experience. Or there may be a child who is exposed to the violence of his father and grows up to need a sense of control and ends up being a bully himself trying to gain that control where once he was frightened now he becomes frightening.




There is much to be said about using body work especially where there has been a strong sense of depersonalisation and dissociation as a coping mechanism. Cognitive processing only, and making sense of it verbally does not alone heal, particularly when areas of learning become damaged in the nervous system where the brain is focused on fear and survival. This is why it can be difficult for children to learn in the school environment especially where there has been exposure to trauma and the same is true for adults who may struggle to engage in work or relationships. These children and adults may be perceived as disengaged or defiant, troublesome, even lazy- making it harder to engage with and entering negative cycles that reinforce the trauma.


Where love, gentleness, and warmth are not felt one is unable to experience the relief of safety needed to let go enough to allow other functioning to take place. There is a profound need to incorporate practices of body work, yoga and breathwork for facilitating healing the visceral nature of trauma, along with a safe talking therapeutic space. Whether it is yoga, focusing on your breathing, Tai Chi, Qi-Qong, Somatic Experiencing, going for a massage, walking on sand or grass, touching a tree- anything that helps you feel connected and grounded and more integrated is worth trying.





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