After traumatic experiences, our nervous systems are on high alert. In Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the nervous system remains that way. Symptoms of hyperarousal include exaggerated startle responses, difficulty sleeping, impulsivity, and a general sense of being “on edge.” (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), NIMH.)
Other sources contend that the periods of hyperarousal alternate with periods of hypoarousal and parasympathetic dominance. Unlike the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for activities that need to be done immediately (fight or flight), the parasympathetic system takes care of necessary but less urgent bodily functions such as digestion and sexual activity. According to Robert Scaer, “[t]his may well be an innate biological reflex designed to reestablish homeostasis, the rhythmic and balanced fluctuation of all biological systems, be they endocrinological, neurophysiological, metabolic or immunological (Antelman et al, 1997).” If IBS is part of your trauma symptoms, then you know what I mean.
So, a part of the persistence of PTSD symptoms may be the mind and body attempting to find a happy medium again, but instead remaining trapped in cycles of arousal and stasis. It isn’t just that we are overwhelmed by excessive emotion during traumatic experiences, but our nervous systems are overwhelmed by too much arousal and too great a response to stimuli.
Because hyper-arousal is often part of the traumatizing experience in the first place, the symptoms of PTSD can mimic the original trauma and contribute to an ongoing sense of powerlessness. Just as we were unable to control the traumatizing event, we can feel unable to control our minds afterwards.
Being able to reset our level of arousal to a more comfortable–and functional–level may be part of the cure for sufferers of post-trauma symptoms. Mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises can help us to lower our levels of arousal when we are too keyed up. Exercise, social interaction, and some hobbies can help us raise our arousal when we become too depressed.
What can be difficult for long-term sufferers is that these states of extreme nervous system stimulation and suppression can become what we are used to. Being constantly on alert can feel normal, but it isn’t good for us. It isn’t good for our bodies, and it isn’t good for our minds. So sometimes we are left to guess at what might be comfortable if circumstances had been different. Learning how to be still, how to relax, and even how to sleep have been some of my greatest challenges in this process of getting better.
Another hurdle in maintaining a more optimal level of arousal is just that we, as a culture, have a tendency to manage stress and over-stimulation in a “feast or famine” kind of way. We work like crazy and then take a day off. We spend the holiday from hell with our toxic families and then stay in bed the next day. But that isn’t necessarily how it’s done best.
What we need most is to keep ourselves at a level of arousal that won’t burn out our pituitary glands. We need frequent “tune-ups.” I wrote recently that I’ve started doing some “gentle” yoga in the mornings when I first wake up. (It’s mostly stretching–which my body badly needs given how tense it so often finds itself–and deep breathing.) And I do some progressive relaxation every few hours throughout the day on most days.
I used to think these kinds of activities were stupid. They aren’t a cure. They don’t address the underlying trauma. But it makes ordinary life a little bit easier to manage. It makes the harder work of really healing more possible. And in our overstimulating, always “on” world, I think more of us need to do this than ever.