Knowledge

Knowledge is like underwear. It is useful to have it, but not necessary to show it off.

Have you ever encountered someone who is like a smart aleck? Someone who feels they always have something to say, to contribute, or feels that while everyone is entitled to an opinion, that they must also show it, and display it by saying something really witty.

Perhaps we know someone in this kind of a context. Perhaps we are that person ourselves. In fact, some people read trivia books or memorise witty one-liners, because they think that being socially witty counts for a lot and gives you a lot of social capita.

It is useful to know things, but we do not need to show it off to other people. We do not need to show people we are well read, or that we know a lot. Of course, when we’ve read a bit, we’ll remain under the spell of what we have read and will want to make sure others know about it, and that they know we know about it. But that is kind of showing off really.

Another problem with showing off is that we are likely to say things that we think are witty but may not necessarily be so. Often these may take the form of silly remarks, but unfortunately may be misinterpreted by others.

Take for example, the many cases of middle-aged men making inappropriate remarks, which in retrospect they define as a bit of “male banter”. “Banter” is a very careful way of deflecting fault, by saying that witty remarks – or those made with a view of being perceived as intelligent – had been misinterpreted.

The bottom line is, if you are not sure how your remarks may be perceived by others, then don’t show off by trying to say something clever. And even if you have an area of interest where you know more about the average person, there is no need to show off to the other people what you know.

Humility is often a good way to go.

 

Listen, then talk

How can you help a friend who needs someone to talk to? Often when we think of someone in need, we should realise that what they need is someone to listen without judgement. This “without judgement” may even extend to listening without dispensing advice. Because when someone has an awful lot of their chest and wants to talk about it, sometimes our “advice”, no matter how well meaning, only increases the tension because we are only giving them more thoughts to think about, when they are trying to get rid of all these thoughts in their head.

Sometimes people have problems because they are overwhelmed. They could be overwhelmed with work stresses or they may have too many things going on at home or in relationships that cause their mind to be filled with thoughts. Like it or not, every thought sends a trigger to your mind. Take for example this situation: You are travelling on public transport and someone plays their music loudly. Your mind recognises this bit of information. “The music is too loud.” And almost instantly it is also thinking, “should I say something about it?” Then after this step your mind is assessing whether or not the person you are about to speak to would be receptive towards what you would have to say or not. Your mind makes judgements about it. And then perhaps if you have assessed it would be safe to do so – you think the individual would be non-aggressive, perhaps unaware of the anti-social behaviour he or she is causing – then you think of the best way to phrase your words. Or if you don’t, your mind castigates you for not having the courage to stand up for yourself and you start evaluating your own life history for such previous instances. Your mind has gone into overdrive simply because someone has played loud music. Just that one trigger has become a stressor and caused you mental overload.

So when someone is stressed, they could have a lot of mental information to process. Let them talk it out. Don’t offer advice initially because they have then to process it, consider your words and their own thoughts. Only when you feel they have emptied themselves, should you then start to think about offering advice. Be a listener for your friend. Not a stressor. No matter how well-intentioned you are, you may inadvertently cause more problems for your friend if you are too keen to dispense advice!

Expressing gratitude

Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.

Have you noticed how people seemed to have forgotten how to say thank you properly these days? When you have a done a favour for someone, or gone out of your way, sometimes the only response you get is a curt “cool”.

This is not a rant at changing times or the slang of modern vernacular, or how the use of the words “thank you” are decreasing.

Rather, it is a look at how we have to be mindful of the way we express thanks.

Imagine this scenario. You have forgotten your phone and someone from your home has to bring it to you, knowing that perhaps it is an important element you cannot leave home without. If they make a big trek to your location, and all they get for the efforts is the phrase “cool” or “nice one”, how do you think they feel?

The problem with phrases such as “cool” or “nice one” is that they are sometimes uttered unthinkingly out of embarrassment, but they are so ungracious that it almost normalises the efforts of others, almost as if the extra mile they have gone was an expectation.

Be gracious for the things in your life and around you. And try expressing it fully to your fellow human beings.

Recognising trauma symptoms can help deal with trauma

To fully understand the impact of trauma and complex trauma, practitioners will need to familiarise themselves with the primary symptoms of trauma. While each survivor’s reactions to trauma are unique and will vary from person to person and depend on the type of trauma, age, the frequency and duration of the abuse, and the relationship to the abuser(s), there are a number of commonalities.

It is crucial that survivors are helped to recognise that the physical and psychological reactions to trauma are normal responses which serve to protect us, and are elicited outside of conscious awareness or control. These reactions are like an emotional immune system, which instead of fighting invading bacteria or viruses, fights to protect us from harm.

To help survivors understand their reactions to trauma, practitioners need to be able to convey the following information in a way that is easily understood by the client and that makes sense to them. This can be supported with directed reading or self-help books such as The Warrior Within (Sanderson, 2010c). Persistent re-experiencing of trauma can be triggered by both internal and external cues. This means that even if the survivor is currently not in actual external danger, inner feelings and sensations can trigger a range of PTSD reactions. Given that they may already be in an elevated state of anxiety, it is easy to set off an already highly sensitive alarm system on the basis of internal physiological arousal. This is potentially dangerous as it prevents the survivor from recognising actual external danger and makes it hard to assess objectively the degree of safety.

To help survivors understand the neurological and physiological responses to trauma it is helpful to explore their knowledge of how the body reacts to danger. When in the presence of danger primitive biological mechanisms such as the alarm system are activated to aid survival. As a result the brain releases a cascade of neuro-chemicals which start a complex chain of bodily reactions, all of which are designed to protect us from the harmful effects of trauma.

Although the alarm system does not stop the emotional pain, stress or trauma from happening, it does cushion the trauma and helps us to deal with it.

The alarm system acts as an emotional immune system, which like the physical immune system, is activated outside of conscious awareness and is therefore not under our control. It is vital that survivors understand that whatever their reactions during the trauma, these were outside of conscious control and therefore they are not to blame or at fault for how they responded. Recognising this can dramatically reduce any crippling feelings of shame, self-blame, or guilt.

When the body’s alarm system is tripped and goes on red alert it sends signals to the brain to prepare for fight, flight or freeze. This sets off two crucial biological defence systems: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system mobilises high level energy necessary for fight or flight, while the parasympathetic nervous system slows down the heart and metabolic rate which results in the freeze response.

The two structures in the brain that regulate the alarm system are both located in the limbic system, the amygdala and the hippocampus. The role of the amygdala is to detect threatening information through external senses such as touch, taste, sound, smell or vision. The amygdala is responsible for determining whether incoming stimuli are desirable, benign or dangerous.

To maximise survival, this evaluation is instantaneous but crude and primitive in that it does not use deeper analysis, reason or common sense. This is why it is often referred to as the ‘fast and dirty route’. If the stimulus is life threatening, stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released, which send messages through the nervous system to the muscles and internal organs to either attack, run or play dead.

The amygdala is highly sensitive to any danger and is easily activated to increase readiness to attack or defend (fight), run (flight) or submit (freeze). In contrast to the ‘fast and dirty’ route of the amygdala, the hippocampus is a much slower route in that it evaluates the external threat through deeper analysis using conscious thought, memory, prior knowledge, reason and logic. The hippocampus is also critical in laying down new memories and experiences. If the danger is truly life threatening, the hippocampus will send messages to continue with appropriate responses. If however the deeper analysis concludes that the stimuli are not dangerous it will send messages to deactivate the responses.

In most cases of threat these two structures work in harmony to balance appropriate responses to the situation. When the trauma is prolonged and repeated such as in complex trauma, the feedback loop that controls these two systems malfunctions and floods the body with high levels of stress hormones.

While these stress hormones are critical for survival, they are highly toxic and only designed to circulate for short periods of time so that the individual can get to a place of safety or remain safe until the threat is over. In the case of certain traumas such as CPA or CSA where the child cannot fight or run to safety, the only option is to freeze. This means that the stress hormones cannot be discharged and remain in the system, which can have a number of negative consequences, not least forcing the alarm system to remain on red alert, or ‘online’(Sanderson, 2010c).

Evidence shows that high levels of cortisol that are not discharged can lead to the destruction of brain cells which can affect the function and size of the amygdala and hippocampus (Gerhardt, 2004; Teicher, 2000). Such malfunction leads to increased arousal, fear and anger responses, as well as memory impairments. When the brain and body are flooded with chronic levels of stress hormones the hippocampus goes ‘offline’and is unable to accurately evaluate the degree of threat or danger. It is also not able to assess whether the danger is internal or external, or whether the traumatic incident is over or on-going, and cannot send the appropriate messages to the amygdala to deactivate the alarm system. This leads to the alarm system remaining on constant red alert and the continued release of stress hormones.

As a consequence the body responds as though the trauma is on-going, even after the threat is over. Over time the alarm system is reset on a default setting of ‘on’, with survivors feeling as though they are being repeatedly traumatised. This leads to a heightened or continuous state of danger, known as hyper-arousal.

This hyper-arousal forces stress hormones to continue to flood the body and brain, and the tyranny of post-traumatic stress responses. Since the hippocampus is not able to regulate the alarm setting, or halt the release of chronic levels of stress hormones, its ability to store new memories is reduced. This means that the trauma is not stored within context or time, making it seem as though it is continuous and never ending.

This in turn prevents the processing of the trauma keeping it ‘online’ with the same vividness and intensity as when the actual assault happened. Not being able to process the traumatic experience makes it harder for survivors to store it in memory or to recall it leading to amnesia, or incomplete or fragmented memories. A crucial goal in recovering from complex trauma is to bring the hippocampus back ‘online’ so that its function can be restored to regulate the alarm system to evaluate danger, and differentiate between internal and external threat.

Prolonged release of high levels of stress hormones impacts on physical well-being leading to a range of physical problems such as hypertension, physical exhaustion, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), sleep impairment, and digestive, respiratory and endocrine problems. In addition, chronic fear reactions and high levels of adrenaline evoke waves of overwhelming anger which survivors cannot release for fear of consequences, thereby creating even further stress. Hyper-arousal also affects concentration and the ability to reflect on or process experiences, preventing survivors from making sense of their experiences.

While the alarm system can activate three alternative reactions – fight, flight or freeze – in most cases of complex trauma, especially when it occurs in childhood, there is only one option: to freeze. The freeze response is designed to conserve energy so that the individual can escape when the danger is over. Young children are not able to outrun or fight an adult effectively, and are thus left with no option but to freeze.

While the freeze response protects the individual from the greater threat of the consequences of fighting back or running away, it is often experienced as passive submission. This can make survivors feel as though they were weak in not fighting back or running away, which can lead to shame, self-blame and guilt. It is important to convey to survivors that realistically children are not able to escape, especially if the abuser is a significant figure in the child’s life such as a parent, relative or priest. In that moment they are both powerless and helpless.

However, the sense of submission can often haunt them and leave them feeling ashamed that they did not do more to prevent the abuse. This is also true for adults who are in thrall to an abuser who has power and authority over them. The freeze response also protects individuals from the full impact of the pain of the abuse.

As the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, a sense of calmness descends on the brain, slowing everything down, and the body begins to feel numb in order to cushion the anticipated pain and the emotional terror of the trauma. Once the danger is over, these reactions fade and the stress hormones are discharged through movement.

Understanding the responses to trauma and conveying them to individuals suffering from them can help them recognise their own reactions and how to deal with them. This will empower them and give them the confidence to break free of the hold traumatic experiences have on them.