stress or trauma

Is It Stress or Trauma? Learn the difference and outsmart anxiety

Perhaps you have experienced some of these situations

  • You have a medical or dental procedure and you try to calm yourself but you notice fear getting the best of you. Afterward you feel numb, spacy and disconnected from yourself.
  • You work in an office where no matter how hard you work, it will never be enough, and you have to be accountable to your supervisor for your productivity and accuracy. You meet the weekend exhausted and spend your free time recovering.
  • You’ve just been rear ended, and though you don’t feel hurt badly, you’ve never been quite the same since.
  • You were a shy child and felt like few people understood you, though they took care of your bodily needs. You had an incident of bullying and you’ve been struggling with feeling like you never fit in.
  • You’ve had an argument with your partner, and learned that they have been keeping a secret from you. You suspected something but were never sure. Afterward you feel anxious, angry and fear trusting anyone again. You try to move on, but the thought of this secret betrayal plays over in your mind like a broken record.

These common experiences have touched most of our lives. We make the best of our circumstances and try to move forward. How can you tell if it’s just the stress of challenging life events or trauma?

Here’s the critical difference.

In stress we believe that we can do something about our situation. In a traumatic event we feel helpless to change the outcome, because it was unexpected, uncontrollable, and inescapable. We feel stuck. Stress turns into trauma especially when we feel shame or guilt. The unresolved situation becomes stagnant energy in the body, and flares up when similar experiences trigger the feeling of helplessness. The result is trauma and it stays in the body.

In both stress and trauma, cortisol, the stress hormone, floods into the blood stream, preparing us for action. Constantly present, cortisol suppresses our immune system and can lead to chronic disease. It also interferes in the creation of new synaptic connections that could change stuck behavior patterns. Too much cortisol makes it difficult to be mindful, so we react rather than respond. Our reactions become automatic, like playing out an unconscious script from the past. We repeat the same behaviors even if they don’t work.

In these double binds, your nervous system responds in one of three ways: fights, flees or freezes. In the language of emotion, you feel angry, anxious or numb. These states bind up a lot of energy, and over the course of our lives, these patterns become ingrained. Stored trauma keeps us from making positive changes, feeling like we keep repeating the same lesson. Each new trigger adds to our trauma load, making us less resilient. The good news is that trauma symptoms are caused by our reaction to the event not by the event itself. We can change our reaction and we can help the nervous system recover and discharge these patterns.

Fight, Flight or Freeze

Unlike our wild animal cousins, our sophisticated brains override the organic intelligence of the body. The fixed trauma states show up in observable gestures, body sensations and emotional states for those trained to see them. For example:

Fight response: restlessness, clenching, pulling away, bouncing feet, protection gestures, irritation, anger, twitching, cold sweats, muscle tension, jaws clamped, rapid shallow breathing, jumpy and reactive

Flight response: hyper vigilance, exaggerated startle response, sleep problems, restlessness, feeling trapped, sense of urgency, holding the breath, anxiety, hypersensitivity to touch, chronic pain

Freeze Response: numbness withdrawal, confusion, shock, shyness, memory problems, tired all the time, poor muscle tone, apathy, feeling disconnected, disoriented, depressed

As these uncompleted trauma patterns accumulate, you may find it difficult to be present in your life. In its wisdom, the nervous system may draw you to people and events that reenact the dilemma to try to complete and discharge these stuck patterns.

Healthy responses let you know you are releasing trauma or stress.

  • Yawning, sighing, heat or hot flashes, warm perspiration, colors look brighter, feel like you have options again, goose bumps, interest in people and relationships.
  • You may find your head moves easily and your eyes want to look around. You feel relaxed and alert. Your shoulders relax, or your blood pressure decreases.
  • Your nose may run, eyes water.
  • Your digestion starts working again and you notice happy gurgling sounds.
  • When the body unthaws from the freeze state it shakes, releasing the effects of stored trauma.

These hard wired responses to trauma are all useful and important ways the body recovers. Most of us have been socialized to suppress these normal, healthy behaviors thinking they are weird. Our head takes over, leaving the body’s wisdom behind. The good news is that with help we can embrace the body’s intelligence and not just manage trauma, but recover.

Talking about it may NOT help.

Common sense would suggest that we should talk about these painful experiences. However talking about trauma can actually make our feelings of helplessness more intense, and reinforce our dilemma. The imprint of the trauma is buried deep in the brain nowhere near the language center of the brain so talking rarely discharges these patterns. Many people find that talk about it over and over again, they feel worse with every telling. I’ve noticed that combat veterans instinctively avoid talking about their traumatic active duty experiences. They either to shut down or can re-enact them without ever intending to do so.

“Sarah”and her birth experience

“Sarah” had been working with me for a few months when she decided she wanted to try the Somatic Experiencing approach. She had been having feelings of anxiety alternating with feeling too busy and then tired and unmotivated. She felt she was a good mother to her 3 teenage children, but felt as if she was just going through the motions of her life and her job.

She noticed she tended to keep people at arm’s length and wondered if being so busy was an unconscious strategy to avoid something. In the initial Somatic Experiencing sessions, she learned how to observe body sensations and stay with them as they “thresholded” and then discharged. She noticed an amazing, but common result of doing Somatic Experiencing: she felt calmer and more balanced and colors looked brighter. (This results from accessing the calming effect of the parasympathetic nervous system, relaxing chronic tension in the eye muscles and effectiveness of the optic nerve).

In one of her last sessions, Sarah came in particularly tired and disjointed feeling. As she observed the sensations in her body she said “I just feel kind of numb, like I’ve been anaesthetized.” She observed her body while it seemed like relatively little was happening. I helped her stay focused on the “nothing” that was going on.

Finally she started to feel a new sensation. Without going into all the details, she was re-living her birth as her little infant body inertly passed through the birth process as a life less object. “I have the feeling of needing someone to touch me, but no one is noticing or perhaps caring. . . . Then I feel this anger go through my body, and something in me decides to never need or want anyone. I will be the one to take care of myself.”

She continued to observe and felt a huge sense of relief as she felt surrounded by a palpable presence of light and love, which she interpreted as an angelic presence that has comforted her throughout her life, when she felt people had let her down.

Afterward, she realized how touch deprived she felt and unconsciously placed her right hand tenderly on her upper chest. A gentle smile came to her lips as she started to release a small part of her lifelong pattern of being fiercely independent.

She realized she wasn’t broken or crazy. She experienced the organic wisdom of her body and how it was only trying to protect her instinctively. This self-protection had been making decisions for her before she could talk or think.

Sarah brought the trauma of being anaesthetized during birth, and then isolated after birth into conscious awareness, a common procedure at the time. She safely relived the experience without feeling helpless. In a safe, supportive environment using Somatic Experiencing, she upgraded this old program for a new more alive engagement in life.

After that session, she started to notice the body sensations that arose when people invited her for coffee, or if someone misunderstood her. She could feel a slight stiffening in her muscles that reminded her to observe rather than act on this deeply imbedded instinct. And after a while she started saying “yes” to life more often. She was optimistic that she could work through this life long pattern, byobserving her body and letting these impulses arise, and naturally complete, freeing her to choose instead of react without thinking.

What you can do to support the organic wisdom of your body.

  • Let your eyes look for beauty. Notice what your eyes want to see. Look around. Take in the world and relish what you enjoy.
  • Touch. Experience touch that is safe and enjoyable: pets, massage, dancing, holding hands, hugs
  • Come to your senses. Observe your body sensations with curiosity, watch and wait to see what happens next as the wisdom of your body is engaged. Your body speaks the language of sensation, and you can learn this language by being a good student of your body’s wisdom.
  • Full belly breathing. Notice how your pet or children breath while they are sleeping and match this deep intake of breath down to the pelvic bones. If you prefer technology instead, take a look at the Emwave device to help restore healthy breathing patterns:
  • Touch: Oxytocin. Place your hand over your heart or upper chest. Notice what happens. It can be a bit magical. Touching your skin calms the nervous system and releases a small burst of oxytocin, which helps you feel a sense of belonging and comfort. See the sidebar article.
  • Music and creative expression. Writing poetry and singing can calm down the overheated brain, listen to music and watch the magic that unfolds in your body.
  • Gratitude. Saying thank you is a prayer that says “yes” to life, and takes your brain out of fight or flight mode.
  • SoulCollage®. The simple act of looking at images, cutting them out, moving them around in a way that is pleasing to you, gluing them down unleashes a tide of well-being in the body.
  • Buddha Smile. Let your lips curve up in to a tiny micro smile, and notice the wave of relaxation that slides down into your body. Watch a funny movie and notice the feeling of heightened alertness you feel. Laughter releases endorphins, the body’s natural pain reliever as it outsmarts cortisol, reduces your blood pressure and softens pain.

Saying “Yes” to Life instead of playing it safe.

As you learn to observe body sensations, you start to “renegotiate” and heal traumatic experiences rather than relive them over and over again Your body’s instinctive organic intelligence has a built-in immunity to trauma.
This intelligence developed over 500 million years of evolution, helps you safely and gradually discharged stuck survival patterns in the body. As Peter Levine says, stuck trauma reactions create “an internal straight jacket created when devastating moments are frozen in time.” They stifle our authentic selves and keep us from moving forward. They block healthy relationships, creativity and aliveness.

When these energies are discharged, you start to feel relaxed, at ease, alert, responsive. You increase your capacity for healthy authentic relationships, feel emotionally stable and optimistic.

You can say “yes” to life again. Like a wild animal, our own innate animal instincts give us a natural immunity to stress. Knowing how to access the body’s wisdom, we can bounce back into the game of life, resilient, alert, relaxed and looking forward to what will happen next.

If you’d like some help with any stuck patterns, whether it is a car accident, surgery, family difficulties or abuse, Somatic Experiencing can gently return your well being, like the neighbors cat, go back to the business of living life fully. Most people find it easy, enjoyable with results the first time.