Have you ever been curious about why and how you react to events and other things that are different from your friends? As a CPTSD survivor, I started questioning why I am the way I am in certain situations. I have noticed all my life that most people around me do not react as vividly to situations as I do. I often wondered why I was so sensitive to situations. Have you ever felt the same? Do you feel that you notice stressful things quicker than others? 

I decided to do something about my curiosity, and I started reading about trauma and the brain. I came across several books, scientists, and psychiatrists talking about trauma and the effect stress has on the brain. The more I found out, the more I wanted to read and I thought I would share some of what I discovered. As a CPTSD survivor, my brain is different from a person who is not suffering from trauma. My reading about how my brain is different has made me understand myself on a deeper level. 

So, what is Trauma? 

Trauma is when a person experiences a distressing event or series of events, such as abuse, a bad accident, rape or other sexual violence, army combat or even a natural disaster. Trauma can be either physical, emotional, or both. Trauma causes dysregulation within the autonomic nervous system in the brain. It makes the sympathetic nervous system in the brain over-activated causing the traumatized person to go into what is called a “fight/flight” response. Your body tenses up and gets ready to react. Trauma also causes the parasympathetic part of our brains, the part which is responsible for our ability to rest and relax after a traumatic event to become underactive. Our bodies go into a hypervigilance state and the inability to feel comfortable and relaxed. This in turn leads to PTSD or CPTSD. 

For CPTSD survivors, trauma can most often be both physical and emotional because of the nature of how abuse happens. Often a survivor has been experiencing trauma for a prolonged time, even years. 

A CPTSD brain 

A survivor of sexual child abuse has unprocessed memories that are highly emotionally charged and easily triggered. A survivor often thinks about and tries to interpret and make sense of their traumatic memories. A survivor has different cognitive and behavioral responses to normal life events and these include avoidance of certain situations and strategies to keep safe in any eventuality. A survivor suffers from flashbacks rather than “memories”. A flashback is an intense, vivid, and often disturbing recollection of the abuse. A person relives the abuse as if the memory is happening right here and now. The flashbacks are often fragmentary, sensory, and unchanging in vivid detail. It is stressful because not only does it feel like it is happening now but a flash happens involuntarily. It suddenly hits you like a bucket of ice water and you might be in a board meeting with your boss! It is never a pleasant experience no matter where you are and who you are with. 

Memories vs Trauma Memories 

A normal memory in a normal brain is time-stamped in a part of our brain called the Hippocampus. This is where all of our long-term memories are stored. They are accessible to our conscious recall and they can be reconstructed. We know this memory is from the past and we can summon it and talk about it with anyone. For example:  “Remember when we had ice cream on the beach and then it started to rain hailstones as big as golf balls?” 

A trauma “memory” is caused by extreme stress. This is also stored in the Hippocampus like a normal memory but the difference between the two is that the Hippocampus part of our brain cannot process the traumatic memory properly and store it away. This memory is not date stamped and a different part of our sensory brain called the “Amygdala” takes over the function of processing these traumatic memories. The Amygdala part of our brain is only supposed to sort out our responses to senses like sound, sight, touch, taste, and smell. It is not able to deal with the full memory and as such, it becomes overactive under the conditions of extreme stress from our traumatic experiences. The trauma memory becomes vividly detailed and easily triggered. I often think of a trauma brain as a bookshelf. A bookshelf that has been stacked improperly is like a CPTSD brain. When someone brushes past the books sticking out, a memory gets triggered, and the books (memories) come tumbling out of the shelves. Sometimes the person is flooded with senses without explanation, other times its just meaningless fragments and sometimes the entire shelf falls and we get soaked by the waterfall of vivid memories as the books tumble out noisily. The next time a trigger happens the books (memories) fall more and more aggressively. The only way to stop the books (memories) from tumbling down is to have a good tidy. These traumatic memories need a gentle examination by the conscious brain, processing them in a safe environment and storing them back safely in the correct part of the brain. 

Survival mode brain – Fight / Flight 

When your trauma memories have reached the Amygdala for processing rather than in the correct part of the brain which is the Hippocampus, you start to live in survival mode. It is like living constantly in the “on” position on a switch and you just cannot turn “off”.  You are feeling very reactive to the world. You are defensive about everything and sometimes even aggressive about the things you care about. In this state, you avoid certain situations, and you often feel unable to trust the people around you. In this state you are stuck and you feel powerless to the extreme changes in how your body reacts to stress. Some survivors switch from being hyper-aroused (jittery and switched on) to hypo-aroused (numb and withdrawn). 

CPTSD brain and everyday  

Survivors of CPTSD like myself often tend to over-focus on perceived threats and this can make it hard to directly focus on everyday things. A sudden loud noise outside the office can make anyone feel annoyed but to a CPTSD survivor, it can feel like a threat. That threat, no matter if it is real or not causes the CPTSD brain to react in a fight/flight way, tensing the body. This problem is linked to reduced connectivity in the brain’s attention system called the ventral and the dorsal network. How these to perform is linked to our trauma experiences in early life. The ventral system is responsible for our involuntary attention. The Dorsal system is our voluntary attention. Oxytocin is a hormone called a neurotransmitter and it is produced in the hypothalamus part of the brain. This hormone helps to regulate and improve our ability to bond with other people. 

When a survivor is stuck in a fight/flight state for a very long time, it makes the body have lots of energy from being hyper-alert. The body is in need of being downregulated or calming down the nervous system. If you are feeling overwhelmed, recognise how your heart is beating. Is your pulse racing after that flashback? Take a beat and give yourself time. You need to take it slow, and take care of yourself. Go grab that coffee you’ve been postponing for the last two hours. Hold that warm cup in your hand and let it ground you to the moment. You’ve got this! 

The “Freeze state” 

Sometimes the trauma causes so much pain and stress that you react by “freezing”. This is especially true after being sexually abused. Your body becomes immobile. It’s like being in deep despair and you feel totally helpless at that moment. You can’t move or talk and your whole body suddenly freezes. Your brain may be physically and mentally unresponsive and you faint. You suffer what is called a psychological shutdown. The body remembers the trauma and it stores the stress in the muscles all-round the body which becomes trapped and unable to dissipate. Years later when you flashback to a particularly traumatic event, especially sexual, you re-live this “freeze state”.  

When you “come out” of this state and return to the present you will feel unwell. You may even be physically sick. I often remember being sick after being abused as a child and falling asleep in my own vomit. I can only compare this feeling to coming out of anesthesia after an operation. It needs to be slow. Suffering any kind of shutdown is terrifying and this is when you need to give yourself time. Time to be compassionate to yourself is important. Let someone take care of you if you have a friend nearby. If anything, they will probably be worried about you! When this has happened to me, I first do an internal body check. Yes, I’m still me, my heart is beating, and I can see, hear, touch, and feel things. I like to have lots of air and quiet space so I go outside and breathe. I like to ground myself to the now and let my body adjust back to the fact that I am safe in the present. I remind myself of my name, the year, and how old I am. I finish by thinking about where I am and what has happened in my day so far and where to go next. The ritual really works for me. 

Do you have a “safe place” where you can escape for a few minutes and take a beat? Somewhere you feel calm and happy? 

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