We each have our own way of reacting to trauma. These are often learned patterns of behaviour based on our experiences in childhood. They will surface when we feel threatened, such as with the current covid pandemic and the bushfires in January 2020. For many of us, these threats have created a sense of fear and uncertainty.
Trauma is defined as not what happened to you, but the way your body responded to what happened to you. When faced with an experience that is too overwhelming to process at the time, your nervous system automatically reacts, and you will generally have an impulse to fight or flee. If this is not possible, and there is no-one available to support you at the time, your body will store the experience.
These stored experiences are like unhealed wounds. They are still there, just below the surface of your awareness. When touched, or triggered by a situation that feels threatening, your nervous system will react in order to protect you. This is your body’s natural intelligence, acting to keep you safe.
We often see these behaviours in children, when they as “act out”, in anger or frustration, or shut down. Does this sound familiar?
Rather than seeing these behaviours as “bad”, or something that needs to be controlled, we can choose to see them as survival responses, bringing us a message. Your child’s intelligent nervous system is sensing a threat, and is acting to keep them alive.
This is NOT a thought out response designed to annoy you. Neither is it attention seeking,as is often assumed.
Jack and Susan
Please note: Jack is a composite story, and is not intended to represent anyone in particular. Susan’s story is also composite, and is based on personal experience.
Susan and Jack both struggled with reactive behaviours that were happening without their conscious awareness.
Susan’s unconscious way of reacting to trauma was to tune out. As a child she had found school scary and overwhelming. She also struggled to connect in the playground, and was often bullied because of her body size and shape – rounded, cuddly and slow-moving.
She often tuned out completely in the classroom,. When the teacher asked her a question she felt humiliated and ashamed. This made her feel even more insecure.
In an attempt to suppress her anxiety, she would unconsciously gnaw on the end of her pencil, or chew on her clothing, giving the adults around her another reason to criticise her behaviour. Unaware of what she was doing, or why, she felt even more ashamed and withdrawn.
Jack had the opposite reaction to trauma. He became a fighter. When he was picked on and bullied at school, his automatic response was to fight back. To protect himself from being bullied, he became the bully. He mixed with “the wrong crowd”, and before long was involved in petty crime, theft, and minor drug dealing.
Both of these children were automatically reacting to unprocessed stress from early childhood. When we experience a traumatic event that we are unable to process at the time, it is held in the nervous system, frozen in time. This triggers an unconscious fight or flight reaction whenever we feel threatened, and we react as though the past event is happening to us right now.
Susan’s nervous system chose flight, and she worked hard to be a “good” girl. Jack’s nervous system, on the other hand, chose to fight. In both cases, their nervous systems were making an intelligent subconscious reaction to ensure survival in the face of threat.
The bullying they received at school undermined their self esteem. Both of them never felt they were quite good enough.
Bullied Children as Adults
As adults they learned to close off, or block, those painful childhood experiences. However, when those early emotional wounds were touched, or triggered, the adaptive behaviours subconsciously emerged. Susan continued to shut herself off and hide emotionally, while Jack would find himself easily becoming angry and aggressive.
Both also struggled with relationships throughout life, rarely feeling safe enough to make close friends. Living in a constantly heightened state of awareness, they were afraid to allow themselves to feel vulnerable. Both Jack and Susan had adaptive behaviours to help block those uncomfortable feelings of never being good enough. Susan resorted to food when she felt vulnerable, and Jack used alcohol to numb the pain of feeling threatened.
You might be observing similar behaviours in yourself, or those around you, during the current period of enforced isolation. Perhaps your children are more restless or anxious than usual, experiencing more nightmares or frequently “acting out”. Maybe they close down, shutting themselves off.
You may be noticing similar signs of anxiety in yourself, perhaps shutting down emotionally and wanting to hide, or maybe reacting by becoming angry and argumentative. These behaviours are normal.
When we feel threatened, our bodies react automatically, causing us to either fight, flee or freeze. An unseen enemy, such as the current covid pandemic, can trigger subconscious fears and emotional wounding from the past. Our reaction is a survival instinct.
Earlier in the year, the enemy was bushfires, and you may have observed similar feelings. In this case we were reacting to our experience of fear and uncertainty. This time, we could see the enemy, but felt powerless. The Covid Pandemic, on the other hand, is an unseen enemy. We stay on alert because we don’t know here or when it might strike.
Behaviours are Bringing us a Message
These behaviours are bringing you a message. They are your nervous systems intelligent response to a perceived threat, a subconscious survival response.
Your Counsellor or Psychotherapist can help you process those early traumatic experiences, safely and without judgement. You will be gently supported to integrate them as memories that no longer have a power over you.
As awareness of your bodily sensations grows, you can learn to recognise that you have a choice. You can choose between an immediate triggered reaction, or taking a moment to breathe and respond more appropriately. The result can be a gradual growth in self esteem and respect. You will no longer be completely at the mercy of a reactive nervous system.
Choosing to Support Social Change
Growing in awareness and understanding, you may choose to become involved in some form of social action, helping to facilitate change, supporting those who are still struggling. You may also find yourself connecting to others in deeper and more satisfying relationships.
We can’t change the past, but we can work towards creating a more meaningful future.
If you feel you are struggling, it’s OK to ask for help.