The four outflows in our mind when we experience a trauma

To help someone effectively recover from a trauma, it's important to not only understand the four basic elements that resulted in a trauma being encoded in their mind, but also how they responded to it.

This is really important as once you understand the inputs and outputs of the traumatic encoding in that person's mind you can better evaluate their healing journey and seek to ensure that they are fully 'healed.' 

In the previous blog the four basic elements for traumatic encoding in your mind were discussed. In this blog we examine what our responses could be as a result of a traumatic experience.

When the four basic elements for traumatic encoding are met, our mind will decide at that moment how to respond to that traumatic event.

Our response will depend on how we have responded to a similar experience in our past (and hence what has already been encoded in our mind as our preferred response mechanism).

Our response also depends on what we may have genetically encoded in our mind from previous generations, which, if we are put in a similar situation, may trigger a preferred response that we have no living experience of.

Finally our response will depend on how we interpret our position and role in that situation. This will be based on how we view and interpret the traumatic event, the meaning we assign to it, the landscape of our mind at the time the event takes place, as well as what we perceive as inescapable.

"Trauma is not what happens to you, trauma is what happens inside of you as a result of what happens to you." Gabor Maté

A study led by Brain Dias at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, investigated the impact of traumatic encoding in mice, studying the fear of smell.

The mice whose parent or grandparent learned to associate the smell of cherry blossom with an electric shock became more jumpy in the presence of that odour and had a response to lower concentrations of the scent cherry blossom compared to control mice.

We know also from studies of families of holocaust survivors that the offspring of holocaust survivors have heightened vulnerability for stress as well as lower cortisol excretion.

What does this mean?

The outflows in our mind in response to a traumatic event not only affect the individual involved in the event, but also has the potential to affect future generations. This ultimately aids the survival of the species, but isn't always helpful.

The outflows in our mind that are encoded as part of the traumatic event will be rapidly recalled anytime we experience, see, watch, or sense anything that is similar to that initial traumatic event.

This is why people may experience flashbacks, feelings of sadness, anxiety, panic, the desire to fight or run, when a particular present experience reminds them of their past traumatic experience.

When it comes to treating trauma, it's important to not only understand the root cause of the traumatic event, but also to understand the outflow that occurred at the time of that event. This is to ensure that the treatment is effectively targeting the source of the trauma in our mind, and also alleviating or removing our response to that experience.

The four responses to a traumatic event can be remembered by the mnemonic CASE - Cognitive, Autonomic, Somatosensory and Emotional. Let's take a look at each of these in turn.

Outflow 1 - Cognitive Responses

Our cognitive response consists of the thoughts, meanings, interpretations and perceptions we have in relation to the traumatic event. 

Let's use a personal example that constituted a traumatic experience for me when I was told as part of an unexpected performance review when working in the corporate world: "You have no emotional intelligence."

It was a traumatic experience for me because the four basic elements for traumatic encoding in my mind were present:

  • Event - there was an event that took place that for me was traumatic
  • Meaning - the meaning I assigned to it was a loss of my reputation, dignity, pride and status
  • Landscape - the landscape in my mind was already vulnerable as I had just experienced a miscarriage and so already felt 'a biological failure' - another traumatic event
  • Inescapability - I could not escape from the experience as the firm had put me on a performance review as a result of perceiving that I had 'no emotional intelligence.' The meeting with the Partner at the time (the event) was to confront and challenge the statement they had put down in writing. I had requested the meeting and had ultimately chosen to go and 'fight' the battle, but I wasn't ready for the aggressive response I received.

Based on the context with which the conversation took place, you could simply assign the statement "you have no emotional intelligence" to it just being applicable to the workplace environment only - or that particular firm/person.

If however you have had previous experiences where your 'intelligence' has been brought into question (as was the case that year and a few events years before for me when I was at University), you could assign the statement of "I have no emotional intelligence" to all aspects of your life.

It isn't, however, just what is said to you. It is how you cognitively encode the received information from your surroundings through your five senses - touch, taste, sound, sight, smell into thoughts, meanings assigned to that object or event, images/scenes, how you interpret that event and what you perceive to be threatening.

When it comes to understanding the extent of impact of our cognitive response on our mind, these can be evaluated through conversation as well as functional brain imaging - such as Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT) or functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). Using functional brain imaging you are able to establish the regions of the brain impacted by the traumatic event, measure both blood flow and brain activity at rest and at concentration.

Outflow 2 - Autonomic Responses

Our autonomic response to a traumatic event is how our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) reacts. This system regulates certain bodily processes, such as blood pressure, breathing rate, heart rate, body temperature, digestion, metabolism, water and electrolyte balance, production of bodily fluids, urination, defection and sexual response.

The ANS has two main divisions:

  • Sympathetic
  • Parasympathetic

When our parasympathetic system is online, we are relaxed, our hands are warm, our heart rate and blood pressure is reduced, digestion is stimulated and energy from processed food used to restore and build tissues. This is our 'normal operating mode' or state when we feel safe, peaceful and calm.

When our sympathetic system is online, as is the case when we are involved in a traumatic event, it prepares our body for stressful or emergency situations - fight, flight, freeze or defensive rage.

Our heart rate and blood pressure increases and our airways widen, making breathing easier. The body releases stored energy. Muscular strength increases. Digestion stops. Our hands become cold, our palms sweat, pupils dilate and our hair stands on end.

Our body responds by wanting to escape the situation in whatever way it deems appropriate for our survival, including freezing or hiding psychologically to 'not be seen' by the threat, by defensive rage, like a cornered rat needing to escape.

This response is easy to measure as we can look at changes against our baseline parameters such as heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, cortisol levels, skin temperature and sweat rate.

Going back to my example of being told "you have no emotional intelligence" this outflow could be increased heart rate, and breathing rate, wanting to escape from the room in which the verdict was being delivered (which is what happened).

The outcome for me was an acute anxiety attack. This was the first one I had ever experienced and it totally took me by surprise. I had to be taken to a different room and helped to calm my breathing down.

Outflow 3 - Somatosensory Responses

This response is encoded as pain, tingling, numbness, the feeling of being off balance, or other sensations, such as teeth grinding (bruxism), as well as tics. When this encoding takes place the traumatic encoding from our mind is relayed to our body for us to 'experience' something physically.

Going back to my example of being told "you have no emotional intelligence," if you are positioned in a particular way on a chair or standing in a certain way when the verdict is given to you, how you choose to respond to that event could include a somatosensory response such as feeling off balance or wobbly.

When the verdict of "you have no emotional intelligence" was delivered, I felt really off balance as if someone had punched me in the head and I was concussed, followed shortly after by my panic attack.

Increasing evidence is showing that, where physical or medical intervention to treat chronic back pain doesn't work, there is some underlying traumatic encoding in the mind.

When you are able to release the traumatic encoding through an appropriate approach, such as Havening Techniques, which has been scientifically proven to provide relief in just one session, the somatic outflow of pain is also removed. This has been observed in several of my clients during a single Havening session.

I have also experienced this myself when physical therapy for lower back pain didn't work. Through tackling it using the Emotional Mindset Management Approach, I was able to remove the source of the pain - which was not in my back, but in my mind.

Outflow 4 - Emotional Responses

When we experience a traumatic event, we attach an emotion to that experience. In essence we assign an emotional charge to that event. This emotional charge carries 'energy,' which drives us into action to do something if we experience the same or similar event.

Emotional outflow could include emotions such as sadness, which are often accompanied by tears, allowing the 'release' of that emotional charge and allowing your body to return to a new equilibrium. 

Where emotional outflow is suppressed, e.g. not crying, or not expelling your anger or 'rage' by 'exercising it off' the emotional charge encoded inside our mind remains.

In this instance, time is not your friend.

The longer you leave that emotion suppressed, rather than expressing it constructively, the more energy it accumulates. It's like brushing your emotions under the carpet like dust, in the hope they will go away. They don't. The dust builds until eventually the pressure is too great and it's like letting off an emotional release valve - often in ways that are out of your control.

Further support if you're struggling with your response to a traumatic experience

Holding onto unresolved trauma is one of the worst things you can do. Like an ember, it burns inside your mind. Burying trauma doesn't put it out - it still burns. The longer you leave it the worse it gets.

The more traumatic experiences you have that are left unhealed, the more you add fuel to the fire inside your mind.

Unresolved trauma can wreak havoc on your mind and body due to increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This makes you more susceptible to future stressors and chronic illnesses.

Are you struggling with unhelpful cognitive, autonomic, somatosensory or emotional responses as a result of a past trauma or unhelpful experience?

There is hope. You have the power to let go of trauma and unchain your pain FAST to finally start living again.

If you are ready to quench the fire burning inside your mind, let go of unhelpful responses so you can start living again, register for Trauma Recovery Group Coaching.

Visit www.ruthmaryallan.com/traumarecovery

You can learn more about Havening Techniques here, and apply for a Havening session.

Or connect with us to discuss how we can best support your needs in unchaining your pain so you can finally start living again.

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