MtRG Part 3 of 4: How to Respond to a Traumatic Event

Welcome to Blog 3! This blog is part 3 of 4 in our Mind the Readiness Gap series. Today we are discussing the Response Phase, or what happens when a traumatic event disrupts our lives. You guys, we’re all going to experience it! Life is challenging…and it doesn’t pull any punches. The trick is to live your life in a way that makes you happy before the trauma, handle any trauma that comes your way to the best of your ability, and then to process through the physiological response of trauma on the other side.

A Quick Review

Keep in mind that the primary goal on either side of a traumatic event is to keep that Readiness Gap as wide possible. Prior to the event, you do this by practicing good daily habits, knowing who your person is, and having a basic education of how to handle trauma and challenges. After the event, you accomplish this by returning to those familiar daily habits and using evidence-based strategies to address the physiological response to the trauma — more on that next week. For this week, we’d like to discuss that moment when we are faced with a traumatic event and we feel like our whole world is beginning to implode.

What is trauma?

First and foremost, no two people will experience trauma in the same way. What is traumatic for one person, may not be traumatic at all for another. So key take away #1:

If it’s not a problem, don’t make it one!

Never feel like you are wrong or unhealthy for not feeling traumatized by an event. On the flip side, never feel ashamed for feeling traumatized by something that seems very miniscule to others. Trauma can be anything: loss of a loved one, witnessing a very difficult and gruesome event, loss of a pet, divorce, bullying, etc. How you react is very much based on your own personal history… a history that no other person could possibly share. Therefore, trauma is a very personal experience, which leads us to key take away #2:

Trauma is any situation that makes you feel like you are beyond your ability to cope.

The Physiology of Trauma

Stick with us because we’re going to delve a little deeper into what actually happens in the brain and the body during and immediately following trauma. This is important because we want you to understand that the experience of trauma is VERY physiological, not just emotional. Sometimes, understanding the basic physiology that is going on behind the scenes can help you to do what you need to do to mitigate the long-term effects of trauma.

Pre-Trauma: Sensory Input

We experience our world through our sensory system: what we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. Trauma is also experienced through those five senses. That sensory input is sent to the brain where it is analyzed by many different structures.

During Trauma: Fight-or-Flight Takes Over

For the sake of today’s blog, we’re going to discuss 3 important structures: the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex, and the hippocampus. The amygdala is responsible for activating survival mode, or the fight, flight, or freeze response. The prefrontal cortex and hippocampus are responsible for rational thought and memory. During severe trauma, the amygdala becomes very reactive and basically takes over most of the brain function. This is a good thing! We all want to survive and the amygdala does what it needs to do in order to make sure that happens. However, this causes the function of the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus (rational thought and memory) to be diminished or completely overridden. Therefore, your brain is doing what it needs to in order to survive, but it virtually eliminates the function of processing memories in order to do so.

Post Trauma: An Imbalance

Following severe trauma that has activated your system in this manner, you can be left with a lasting imbalance between the amygdala (fight-or-flight) and the prefrontal cortex (rational thought). You can also be left with a lot of memories that have not been properly integrated into long-term memory. They just kind of circle around in a neurological loop, looking for a way to download. So let’s say that you experienced a very specific smell during the event. And a few weeks later, you smell something that is very similar. That smell can instantly trigger a memory that takes you right back to the event. This is what we often think of as a flashback. Keeping in mind that there is an imbalance that now exists between our fight-or-flight system and our rational thought system, our body then responds by immediately going back into fight-or-flight mode. This typically manifests as anxiety and panic attacks.

So What’s Important About the Response Phase?

Now that you have a very basic knowledge about what can happen in your body during a traumatic event, we hope that it highlights the importance of the Readiness and Recovery phases for you even more. The three most important things to keep in mind during the Response phase are:

  1. To realize that you are being traumatized in the first place – anything that feels like it is beyond your ability to cope is trauma.
  2. To understand that the response you are experiencing is physiological and the sooner you begin using strategies to mitigate this physiological response, the better.
  3. To steal a quote from our military and first responder communities, “Train like you fight and fight like you train.” What this means is that people tend to respond to a traumatic event in the same manner that they were living their lives before the event. When you apply this philosophy to our program, that Readiness phase becomes very important. If you’ve put in the work prior to a traumatic event to widen your readiness gap, it will be easier to return to those daily habits and coping strategies following a traumatic event.

 

As much as we’d like to keep going, we’ve covered quite a bit so we’ll stop there for this week. Next week we will introduce you to the Recovery phase and give you a quick overview of the strategies that we, as well as research, recommend to mitigate the long-term effects of trauma. See you next Friday!

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