Stress and Trauma
Many of us use the words Stress and Trauma to describe our current experience or things that have happened to us in the past. They are blamed for much of what is difficult or unpleasant in our lives. However, they are rarely defined clearly, so we really don’t understand what we are talking about.
The view of stress we will use in this book is probably different from what you hear on TV commercials or read in magazine articles. The focus of those presentations is usually to make you powerless and suggest you buy something. Our definition, on the other hand, is both accurate and helpful in producing change in our selves, since it defines the concepts in terms we can actually change.
My reaction to a situation in which I feel the need to have more control than I can.
First notice that stress is not something outside of us. It doesn’t “happen to” us. Stress is an internal reaction, which turns on our sympathetic response. The important thing to recognize about stress is that it is related to our desire to control.
Two people work for the same angry boss, who constantly bullies and threatens them. One is expecting a million-dollar inheritance in the next year. The other has a family to support, is in debt and living paycheck-to-paycheck. It’s doubtful they experience the same level of stress. Neither can control the boss, but the second person likely feels a great deal more need to do so.
Dealing with Stress
There are two major approaches to dealing with situations outside our control: The Western response is to try harder. The Eastern response is to let go of the rope. In a tug of war, when I’m alone on my side and there are ten football players on the other, I can continue to fight, or I can simply accept the fact that there is no way for me to win and use my energy more productively.
As we discussed earlier, most of us are more interested in controlling others, which we can’t do, than in controlling ourselves. The first is hopeless; the second merely difficult. Making ourselves angry, fearful or depressed, we burn energy to no purpose, shut down our immune responses and block the maintenance functions of our bodies. Increasing autonomic tone generally produce a whole batch of negative results in our lives.
Believing that all this is related to some external force in our lives, we are helpless. Accepting that these results come from our choice to try to control things outside of ourselves, we create a path toward resolving the problem.
Stress triggers the fight-or-flight response. Often we can flee or overcome the experienced threat. Sometimes we can do neither. A soldier in a war zone, a wife trying to separate from a brutal spouse or a child experiencing abuse can’t very well just let go of the rope and accept the situation. Nor can they escape or beat the uncontrollable situation they desperately need to control.
A change in my internal environment when my sympathetic response is triggered but I can neither fight nor flee.
In such a case, the only option is to freeze. Freezing in a crisis is the ultimate way of giving up control.
Remember that the sympathetic response is physical. Multiple changes take place in my physiology to support an emergency response. If all of those preparations are taken but never released, the body is left with a tremendous amount of unexpressed energy. After such an experience trembling is a natural release. Animals and children tremble quite naturally after experiences of powerlessness. Adults often block the response.
Each time the muscles that are activated to prepare us for fighting or running away are unable to release, it becomes more difficult for them to activate in the next experienced crisis. Freezing becomes the first response, even in a situation where fight or flight ARE possible. Trauma tends to make an individual more susceptible to additional trauma. In this way, the body and the brain encode the very thing we want to avoid.
There are well-recognized and powerful techniques for releasing the frozen muscles which hold trauma. There are nutritional interventions which can help to rebuild a burned- out adrenal system. But if we do not change our expectations of control, we simply keep re-stressing and re-traumatizing ourselves. Training to change the brain-activation habits which program these responses into our subconscious strategies for dealing with life is crucial not only in releasing old traumas but also in blocking formation of new ones.