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Surviving Childhood: An Introduction to the Impact of Trauma


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Lesson 2: The Psychology and Physiology of Trauma
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The Psychology and Physiology of Trauma

The following points are an overview of human response to threat and trauma. Don't worry if you don't grasp all the concepts at first reading. We will be discussing these issues in greater detail as we move through our course. Consider this a preview of sorts.

  • The brain mediates threat with a set of predictable neurobiological, neuroendocrine, and neuropsychological responses.
  • These responses may include different survival strategies -- ranging from fighting or fleeing to giving up or surrendering.
  • There are multiple sets of neurobiological and mental responses to stress. These vary with the nature, intensity, and frequency of the event. Different children may have unique and individualized sets of responses to the same trauma.
  • Two primary adaptive response patterns in the face of extreme threat are the hyperarousal continuum (defense -- fight or flight) and the dissociation continuum (freeze and surrender response). Each of these response sets activates a unique combination of neural systems.
  • These response patterns are somewhat different in infants, children, and adults -- though they share many similarities. Adult males are more likely to use hyperarousal (fight or flight) response, while young children are more likely to use a dissociative pattern (freeze and surrender) response.
  • In general, the predominant adaptive style of an individual in the acute traumatic situation will determine which post-traumatic symptoms will develop: hyperarousal or dissociative.

Exercise: Catalog Your Alarm Response Patterns

Think back to the last time you felt threatened in some way and your alarm state was activated. Perhaps you were walking down a dark street one night and heard footsteps close behind you. Perhaps you were attending a football game one afternoon when some beer-swilling fans next to you began a fight with a fan of the opposing team seated in the row behind you.
Pick two or three events from your life where you felt some element of threat. For each, make two columns. In the first column, list the emotional and mental changes you remember -- for example, a sense of unreality, intense fear, or tuning out the world. In the other, list the physical symptoms such as racing heart, sweaty palms, or light-headedness. What physical symptoms do you recall emerging as your brain sent the signal to your body that a threat was near? Did you want to run? Did you feel an adrenalin surge in preparation for possible self-defense?
Visualize your body and make a mental list, from head to toe, of every physiological response to the perceived threat that occurred. This can illustrate two key points: 1) you probably had a slightly different set of adaptive changes in each event and 2) the mental (i.e., psychological) and body (i.e., physiological) changes are interrelated, interdependent, and, in fact, components of the same neurophysiological response to threat. It is not useful or accurate to think of "psychological" vs. "physical" responses.


 


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