You're Not Crazy # 9
Updated: Mar 31
I recently attended a two day training on working with persons who have experienced trauma. The presenter repeated over and over that we all do "crazy things" (my words - not his words) when our survival mode or primitive instincts kick in.
The amygdala is a small structure in the human brain that serves as an alarm for our body, and when it detects danger it triggers activation of the fight-flight-freeze reaction. In some respects it is really awesome, because it instantly prepares our body to do whatever is necessary to survive. Our body automatically responds with increased heart rate, faster breathing, and our digestive system shuts down to reserve more energy to take action. Cortisol is pumped into our blood stream to make us hyper-vigilant. We become defensive, irritable and ready to strike. Adrenalin and noradrenalin are released to make our body stronger and to increase our endurance should we need to fight or run for our lives.
If we are needing to run from someone who is trying to kill us, then the fight-flight activation would be welcomed and hopefully life saving. The problem is that persons who have experienced trauma frequently experience false alarms where the body is activated in situations that are not life threatening. Not only is that true, but persons who have not experienced traumatic injuries or events are at times triggered and their survival mode is activated in situations that are not dangerous.
Just a few days ago, I was overly stressed due to having difficulty attempting to solve a technology problem. After learning the webcam on my old laptop was no longer working, I purchased a new laptop. With the new computer and help from technology savvy friends, I was still unable to get my new webcam to work. I ended up yelling at my wife when she asked me to do a simple task. The reason I responded the way I did was not due to insanity, although my wife may disagree. It was because of being overly stressed, emotionally drained and frustrated my body went into survival mode. After a quick trip to the store where I purchased my computer, the tech person solved the problem in just minutes.
It is important to understand that when the amygdala activates our survival mode, the prefrontal cortex (more advanced part of the brain that allows us to feel empathy and to make wise decisions) shuts down temporarily to allow our survival instincts to protect us. In simple terms, we become stupid when we are highly angry or frightened. Without the knowledge and practiced development of important coping skills, we have limited ability to manage our feelings and actions when stressed.
The point that the presenter of the trauma seminar was making is that persons who have experienced traumatic events are often triggered, and their reactions are the result of what the body and mind do in survival mode. If mental health professionals understand this, they can focus on teaching effective coping skills to calm the body and quiet the mind. They can also work collaboratively with clients to encourage them to develop and practice competencies to take control of their lives and to experience confidence and well being.
Mental health practitioners have focused too much on labeling disorders and using psychological terminology that often leads clients to believe they are broken and mentally ill. When clients need to be understood and realize they can do much to improve their situation, they often end up feeling more misunderstood and experience the stigma associated with mental health treatment. The presenter of the trauma seminar mentioned several times that we get more of what we focus on. He encouraged attendees of the seminar to focus on helping clients develop their personal strengths and to spend less time talking about their symptoms.
I have been a therapist and mental health practitioner most of my adult life. There are many therapists I know who care and do good work. I believe a countless number of people have been helped through mental health services. In spite of this, I do agree that therapists and other mental health workers could benefit from a more positive focus. There are a couple areas of psychological health that have taken steps toward this end. The areas are POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY and SOLUTION FOCUSED THERAPY.
If you struggle with depressed feelings, are overly anxious, feel you're not good enough, or have urges to self-harm, I am encouraging you to stop thinking you're crazy or believing there is something profoundly wrong with you. Instead, I suggest that you understand that you are not all that different from others. I also encourage you to develop skill sets that will help you to better manage your feelings and behavior.
In the weeks ahead, I am hoping to develop various self-study skill sets that you can download from my website. It will take time to learn and practice these skill sets. I welcome any feedback from my readers that they wish to give me. With your permission, I would like to share some of that feedback in future posts.
The self-study I will be doing is not to replace mental health services. Please see a therapist, if you feel the need to do so.