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Even now, orange juice still scares me. Even a photo of orange juice scares me.

One of my earliest memories is of my mother hitting me on the head with a chair.  It isn’t my earliest memory, but it is one of them.  I’m pretty sure the chair stunt was precipitated by my knocking over the orange juice at the breakfast table.

So you can understand that I think quite a lot about trauma and how it works.  Managing traumatic reactions is part of what I find necessary to get through the day, and I do find it a little tedious, and I am working at fixing these little problems once and for all.  So it’s important to me to understand this.

What struck me recently, as a kind of new realization about the whole thing, is that whatever we did at the time of a traumatic event, our brains record as having been a success.  No matter how frightened or confused or badly hurt we were, we lived.  That’s success.

The brain structures involved in traumatic responses, which I do have a tendency to get muddled all over again every time I look them up, involve the amygdala (definitely), the hippocampus (I think), and the anterior gyrate cyngulate (possibly) and are extremely primitive.  Reptiles have them, which is why some people refer to it as the lizard brain.  The lizard brain is not designed for anything too complex.  Not getting eaten is at about the right level..

If you did not get eaten, whatever you did worked.  The amygdala takes note, and this response will most likely to be repeated the next time it looks like you are about to be in the same kind of danger as you were the last time.  Because, really, you don’t have a lot of time to think or react to most life-threatening situations.  You need to act, and act quickly–it’s much more practical to have a gameplan immediately at hand, like a fire drill.

A Speke’s Gazelle at Saint Louis Zoo. Copyright Eric Bloemker.

Repeating past reactions causes problems for us because it was never designed for the complex worlds we live in.  If you imagine yourself as a Speke’s gazelle on the veldt of Africa (I am fond of Speke’s gazelles), and you’ve been attacked by a lion once before, but then managed to escape, then you can imagine you would be inclined to do the same thing you did before as soon as you smell a lion.  The difference is, if you are a gazelle, the scent of a lion nearly always signals another lion.  The sensory information is not ambiguous or confusing, it doesn’t have multiple causes, and its meaning is unlikely to change over time.

Not so for people.  If I spill something or drop something or am otherwise a bit clumsy or, in fact, make any kind of minor mistake, I relive a bit of the chair-attack, because that is what most immediately and obviously preceded being bludgeoned with a kitchen chair.

A mistake is my scent of a lion.  I actually don’t really know what I do at that point, because I dissociate and then everything gets a bit vague, but it’s probably some variation of whatever I did when I was two.  (I suspect it is to become extremely compliant.)  Only I am not two, and no one is likely to hit me over the head with a chair.  And being extremely compliant often does not work out well for me.

The Limbic System. Courtesy John R. Hesselink, M.D. http://spinwarp.ucsd.edu/neuroweb/Text/br-800epi.htm

To really hammer the point, the signals our brains so carefully record and retain to keep us safe from danger are often false signals.  Entirely different situations may share similar elements: Combat veteran returned from one of our many recent wars may hear the sound of explosions and instinctively dive for cover, because that is what kept them alive in Afghanistan or Iraq.  Back home though, the explosions are more likely to be only the sound of their childrens’ computer games.  Diving for cover is embarrassing and scares the kids.

And, unlike the Speke’s gazelle, our lives often change.  We change.  Those around us change.  Stimuli that once signaled danger may signal nothing at all.  Even if it does signal danger, the response that will save us may be different.

We also have much bigger brains, and can make generalizations about the elements of the event.  Those generalizations may also play a part.  So, for example, I have generalized spilling juice to all mistakes.  This compounds the problem, rather than making me more safe, because now I have a traumatic reaction to a wider variety of harmless stimuli.

Traumatic responses cause problems.  Even if I am able to suppress the urge to run around the room screaming if I drop a cup of tea at work, my body will still leap into action: suppressing my pre-frontal cortex, elevating my heart rate and respiration, routing bloodflow away from my digestive system, and possibly giving me the sudden urge to vomit.  (Like sea cucumbers, some people seem to vomit under stress to distract the predator with a smaller meal.)  My brain is also likely to flood with the hormone cortisol, which suppresses the immune system (among other things).

None of these things are good.  I need my pre-frontal cortex in full operation at work.  Having regularly elevated heart rate and respiration leads to nasty things like heart attacks.  Erratic bloodflow to the stomach and bowels can manifest itself as IBS.  Even if your PTSD symptoms don’t cause problems for you in your job performance or personal relationships, they still suck at an entirely physical level.

But my lizard brain doesn’t know this.  It learned spilling juice meant terrible things could happen, and it is designed to make sure they don’t happen again.  The only solution is to unlearn what I learned.  And, as I can tell you based on what I see of my students, it is a lot harder to unlearn something than it is to learn it.

For those of you who might have stumbled across this post because you are in a similar situation and looking for some practical tips, I can tell you what has worked for me.  It is, actually, the only thing that has ever worked for me.

I practice having a non-traumatic response.to the traumatic stimuli.  I teach myself that it is safe.

I am not saying I tell myself.  The lizard brain doesn’t understand language all that well.  And if I am really good and properly scared, it’s likely that my Wernicke’s area is not at full capacity and won’t understand, but the lizard brain does understand sensory input.  It understands experiences.  And it can’t distinguish between imagination and reality–at least not very well–which can be used to good advantage.

The view from my window calms me.

So, I call up some portion of the traumatic memories (obviously, there’s more there than just the chair), and then I proceed to alter the physical reactions to the trauma that I have some conscious control over (like breathing) and give myself mental images or real experiences of safety.  I imagine myself with a good friend, or I pet the cat, or I watch the birds outside through my beautiful, room-wide windows.  And then I do it again.  I’ve been doing this for several hours a week for about two years.  Essentially, what I’m teaching myself is how to interrupt the automatic traumatic response.

Lion in pursuit of a gazelle. Courtesy Thomson Safaris. http://blog.thomsonsafaris.com/safari/lion-hunt-serengeti

I’m sure there’s more to it than all of that, and that there are other complex aspects of the trauma–such as the meaning I’ve made of it and how I’ve come to see myself–that can only be dealt with through the skilled help of a psychotherapist.  Which I’m doing as well

But this part, the unlearning part, is the worst part as well as the part that no one else has ever been able to help me with, and has kept me mired in that moment before the chair hit me, before I lost consciousness, and before I woke up in a pool of blood.  It has kept me from being able to move forward, because the unlearning is the most important part.

If you want to know where I got the idea, I got it off the Internet.  And I can’t find it again.  I looked.  It may still be there, but I can’t find it.

But the main thing is that it works.  I do sense normalcy on the horizon at last–possibly within reach.  Even if it was hard.  And it took a long time.  And tired me out.  I have found a way to unlearn that the scent of a lion means danger.

Further Reading:

Neuroscientists Identify how Trauma Triggers Long-Lasting Memories in the Brain.  (2005, August 18).  Science Daily.  Retrieved from:  http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/08/050814175315.htm