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Is it all in your head?

Did it ever happen to you that you were worried or anxious about something and someone told you ‘oh, there’s nothing to worry about, you’re just over reacting, it’s all in your head’?
Is it really all in your head though? Let’s find out.
We all sure have heard words like trauma, traumatic. Let’s first know what trauma is.

A traumatic experience

  • can be single event / series of events and/or chronic condition(eg, childhood neglect, domestic violence)
  • single event, a series of events, and/or a chronic condition (e.g., childhood neglect, domestic violence)
    -can affect individuals, families, groups, communities, specific cultures, and generations.
    -overwhelms an individual’s or community’s resources to cope, and
    -it ignites the “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction at the time of the event(s).
    -it produces a sense of fear, vulnerability, and helplessness

Trauma is not what happens to you, but what happens inside you as a result of what happened to you. It is not just the event itself that determines if something is traumatic but also the individual’s experience of the event. Two people may be exposed to the same event but experience and interpret differently.

Let’s bust some myths about trauma

“Trauma Is Life-Threatening”
Even though life-threatening situations are typically a part of traumatic experiences, any circumstance that makes a person feel entirely alone and overwhelmed can also be traumatic. Trauma is subjective. The more helplessness a person experiences, the more likely they are to become traumatised.

“Trauma healing is a linear process”
There is no step by step path to go from unhealed to healed. Healing is not a task but a practice. Healing takes place in spiral. One might reach the same points again and again, experience the triggers or flashbacks again and again but react to them differently each time, the impact might be less slowly with healing.

” Time heals all the wounds”
When it comes to trauma, time does not heal the trauma. Similar to how physical wounds sometimes require stitches, medication, surgery , psychological intervention might be required to heal from trauma.

“I am fine as long as I don’t think about it”
People might find ways to avoid thinking about Traumatic memories. But it doesn’t mean they are gone and do not influence a person’s thoughts or behaviour. Traumatic events can have significant impact on physical and mental health.

“I must have done something to deserve it”
This thought is especially prevalent among kids who have suffered trauma and abuse. It is one method by which the brain tries to restore control in a helpless circumstance. In contrast to believing they were actually helpless in the face of evil, it is simpler for a youngster to think they were somehow responsible for the abuse (which is never the case).

Many researches have shown that trauma has an impact on the brain. Trauma mainly affects three parts of our brain

Amygdala: emotional response centre of the brain which plays a role in emotional memories and fear response. If amygdala senses threat, it activates the body’s stress response system to prepare the body to respond to that danger.Trauma increases the risk of misinterpreting whether the incoming sensory info poses a threat to safety. When an individual experiences a traumatic event, the alarm system can become sensitized to that, things that others may perceive as harmless maybe seen as very threatening, sending an alarm to rest of the body.

Hippocampus: associated primarily with memory and learning. It is responsible for helping the brain differentiate past from present. Trauma leads to reduced activity in hippocampus, thus perceiving the trigger memories of traumatic events as a threat

Prefrontal Cortex: part of the brain that is responsible for executive functioning, or higher level thinking or reasoning. Usually, the balance between amygdala and medial prefrontal cortex is delicate enough that we are able to avoid overreacting to harmless stimuli.

However in individuals suffering from PTSD, the balance between them shifts making it harder to control emotions and impulses.

When one goes through a traumatic experience (s), there occurs an alteration in brain chemistry, the traumatic memory is stored and might come out as triggers or flashbacks. During such triggers, increased function of amygdala and decreased function of prefrontal cortex was observed.

Here is a little reference from Harry Potter and the deathly hallows part 2. When Voldemort kills Harry, he appears at King’s Cross station and has a chat with Dumbledore. They talk about everything ranging from deathly hallows to Dumbledore’s dark past. At the end of conversation, Harry asks Dumbledore one last question.

Harry Potter: “Tell me one last thing. Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”
Albus Dumbledore: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

Trauma is a very personal experience. It alters the brain chemistry. Therefore, when one is triggered, they might be overwhlemed while others around them might not feel the same. So next time when someone tells you it’s all in your head, tell them it is in your head(that is where our brain is located and trauma has an impact on brain), but it doesn’t mean it’s not real. Your pain is valid, your suffering is valid and your experiences are valid.

Does this mean, trauma changes a person forever and there is no hope to heal from it?
Ofcourse not , Brain has an incredible ability to adapt and change overtime. This is a trait known as neuroplasticity. Brain continues to develop new neurons in certain areas, specifically in the cortex in to your twenties or maybe even later. We can consciously change who we are for the better. Learning to regulate emotions and manage overwhelming feelings is a skill that can be learnt. Research on mindfulness practice also demonstrates the power of our innate capacity to consciously create positive changes in our brains.

Healing and recovering from trauma is not easy, but it is possible with the help of an experienced therapist. Psyklife provides one on one counselling services, feel free to reach out.

Written by- Madaalasa Mannava

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