Chapter 2 – The Stress Response and Trauma

Stress is our nervous system’s response to a perceived threat to our basic needs. When we think we are under threat, our brain immediately releases chemicals that cue our nervous system (see Figure 4 below). Our nervous system will then activate our entire body to protect us.

All of this happens before we have a moment to consider if what we think is a threat, actually is one. As far as our nervous system is concerned, better to react immediately to any potential threat, than wait to figure it out. For instance, dodging from the path of a car, or removing a hand from a hot surface. This immediate reaction to a perceived threat is what we refer to as a stress response. There are times this response is necessary, even life saving.

The stress response is protective, prompting us to pay attention and stay alert. With greater alertness and attentiveness, we can focus our attention on the possible threat and figure out a way to resolve it. We will attempt to resolve it by:

fighting – with anxiety or hostility
fleeing – through depression, distraction and numbing freezing – by disconnecting and dissociating, or fawning – pleasing others at the expense of ourselves.

Figure 4: Neurochemicals (i.e. cortisol & adrenaline) are released when we believe we are threatened, which activates the biological stress response. The stress response mediates how we react to the event. When this happens, conscious choice is at least hampered, if not impossible

So why do we perceive some events or situations as stressful, that other people do not? Why do some of us seem to have our stress response activated so much of the time?

Whether an event is interpreted as a threat will depend on how similar events in the past have been interpreted by our brains. For instance, if you were chased and bitten by a dog as a child, it is quite likely that you become afraid of dogs after that event. This fear would arise anytime you see a dog, regardless of whether the dog was wagging its tail or growling.

When the threat feels especially intense, or imminent, there is little room for choice, or will power. The nervous system functions protectively and proactively, which often shuts down the body before we have a chance to consciously work with it. As such, our behaviors are primarily a reflection of the state of our nervous system, not a reflection of how much we want or don’t want to change. Believing we or others’ lack willpower is an old narrative that breeds shame, further disempowering us and limiting our choices. Cultivating a greater sense of safety for the body’s nervous system and reducing the intensity of perceived threats requires compassion.

From the fear-based nature of the stress response, we cannot make objective decisions until we become aware of what’s actually happening in the moment – peeling the current threat away from the unhealed wound of the past. To do this, we must access an objective perspective, which is where relationships with objective (and compassionate) others come into the equation. With this more objective perspective, we can determine if the threat is real or a projection from the past (aka trauma). When real, we take meaningful action to resolve. When a projection of the past, we have an opportunity to heal a past wound (now presenting as trauma) with present-day resources.

Pause to Reflect: What is stress to you?

What are some things that activate your stress response?

How does stress feel in your body?

Pause to Practice: Interrupting the Stress Response

  • Use RAIN (described in Chapter 4): Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture (Brach, 2019).
  • Use the 4-7-8 breath (see Chapter 4).
  • Receive unconditional positive regard by reaching out to someone you feel safe with – share your fear/shame. When we are seen in unconditional positive regard, shame and fear are more easily shaken off.
  • Do something you want to do. It’s important that you feel desire, rather than obligation.
  • Take a walk/sit in nature. Bathing in nature reduces anxiety, depression, and anger, and improves our energy and the strength of our immune system (Simard et al., 2015; Song et al., 2015).
  • Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) can help reduce anxiety and alleviate PTSD (Church et al., 2013; Clond, 2016). See Chapter 4.
  • Stretch with intention. While holding the stretch, soften the physical tension with your breath, continuing to stay with and breathe into the tension until you feel a subtle release. Then try to integrate the same approach with emotional tension. Stretching improves flexibility, range of motion, the immune system and reduces the amount of stress hormones circulating in our bloodstream (Corey et al., 2012; Suzuki et al., 2018).
  • Shake it off, literally! Exercise (including dancing!) emulates the same resource that animals use when they shake and tremble after an intensely stressful event. In addition, exercise improves our cognitive abilities, our immune system, and reduces the risk of developing a variety of chronic conditions (Basso & Suzuki, 2017; Kyu et al., 2016). Those who exercise 3-5 days a week, at intervals of 30-60 minutes, and those who are part of a group or team seem to reap the most ongoing mental health benefits (Chekroud et al., 2018).

It’s not about how many tools you have in your tool belt, it’s about how much you enjoy the ones you have. We will introduce you to several tools throughout the 12 week program. explore self-regulation in the following chapters. Keep exploring until you find something rewarding. When one practice becomes burdensome, try something else that sparks your interest.

Emotions can be the Voice of Trauma: What are you Hearing?

Trauma is not about the number or severity of hardships we are facing. It is about our confidence in our inner and outer resources, to navigate a traumatic event, and feel and express the associated emotions.

Traumatic events are a hard, but inevitable part of normal life. In Western culture, experiencing difficult things can bring up feelings of shame, as though some personal flaw or weakness is responsible for what has happened to us. This is reinforced by cultural beliefs such as ‘good things come to those who wait’ or the idea that hard work is rewarded by success (so if you aren’t successful, you just aren’t working hard enough). The reality is, the current conditions in which many of us now live are innately traumatizing. Trauma is a normal response to toxic cultures and colonizing systems.

“Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic [compassionate] witness.” Peter Levigne

If we feel too unsafe to express our feelings around a traumatic event, these feelings will be pushed away, hidden from us in a sense. The emotions don’t go away though, however much we may wish that they would. The feelings, and the energy attached to these feelings, get ‘stuck’ in our body. It remains a stuck energy that the body carries forward. The more stuck emotional energy we carry, the more likely we are to consider future events as threatening, whether or not they actually are.

In this way, trauma can be thought of as stuck emotional energy; the emotions are there, somewhere, but we haven’t yet acknowledged them, felt them, or released them. Trauma is stored in our body, not in our mind. This means we can work to feel and release the emotions related to a traumatic event, without having to re-visit the event itself. Furthermore, our body knows intuitively how to heal itself. When we have a cut, we ensure it’s clean and protected, and our body does the rest, providing it is in a relatively healthy state. The term inner healing intelligence is the idea that our body similarly knows how to heal our inner wounds.

Each time something reminds our nervous system of a traumatic event in the past, our stress response is activated, and the past emotion – the one(s) too difficult to feel back then, are often right there beneath the surface. This provides an opportunity to release the stuck energy of these ‘old’ emotions.

This confusion between this stuck emotional get energy from the past, and what is happening in the present is referred to as emotional projections. This means simply that old emotions from the past project themselves onto something that is happening in the present.

It can be helpful to remember that when unresolved emotions from the past come to the present day surface, they will often feel threatening. This is because these emotions initially formed in a threatening environment. How this might look in real life is an ‘overreaction’ to a comment, or ‘shutting down’. The ability to identify, feel, and express the past hurt can only happen when the body feels safe enough, confident enough etc. to work with it. If we are still lacking the security/safety to face it, we will continue to tuck it away, subconsciously. It will then continue to surface until we are ready to feel and express it. These projections onto our present day is our inner healing intelligence providing a pathway to feel and heal unresolved trauma. A practical example of an emotional projection could look something like this:

A well meaning co-worker is giving me constructive feedback about a task I completed. I can’t see it as such – to me it immediately feels deeply threatening, and I can only see it as criticism at first. I become angry and defensive, and storm off. When I am able to get myself more calm, I recognize a feeling of unworthiness. I reflect on the fact that I grew up with an extremely critical parent; nothing I did was ever good enough. I see how – without even thinking, or having a chance to think – I responded defensively based on past hurts.

When we can recognize the projection of past hurt onto present events, we are more able to step back and recognize where the immediate and intense emotions come from. We can provide our body with an opportunity to recognize that old hurt, and perhaps release some of the emotional charge from the experience. We will experience projections again and again until our bodies develop enough security to feel our way through the intensity of the emotions needing to be felt.

Healing Past Trauma through Present Emotions: Securing the Roots

As stated above, one of the most effective ways to heal from past trauma is to develop the security and safety required to feel and express strong, perhaps threatening emotions. To develop this security, we require relationships that we trust will mirror unconditional positive regard. When immersed in such an environment, security naturally develops, and as a result, a space is created between perceived threats and automatic reactions. Once we feel more secure, much like a tree with deep roots, passing emotions do not feel threatening to our sense of safety in the world. Emotions become information to take into account, rather than triggers. From this more objective and compassionate place, we can re-interpret a traumatizing past event through a more resourced and secure version of ourselves. This is how we rewrite old narratives, and how we release stuck emotions.

Co-regulation theories teach us that authentic relationships, that mirror unconditional positive regard, help us expand our ability to tolerate strong emotions. As our capacity to feel emotions grows, emotions from the past will begin to present on the surface of our daily lives. This is a good sign! But it doesn’t always feel like a good sign. Our body is taking the first opportunity to heal, as it is designed to do. Emotions that were too threatening to feel in the past, suddenly become tolerable. We can witness the intense emotion/trauma response but not get overwhelmed by it.

Pause to Practice: Compassion to our Nervous System

We learn self-compassion by being in relationships that provide unconditional positive regard. When we can receive unconditional positive regard from others, we start to believe we are worthy of it. To promote a compassionate relationship to emotions that come up, try speaking to them like you would a dear and loyal friend – a ‘dear other’. It’s a way to practice using a compassionate inner voice.

While it’s important you use your own words so it feels genuine, these are a few examples of what it might sound like to ‘Dear Other’ your nervous system:

Speaking to your nervous system:

Thank you for protecting me back then.”

“You helped me when I did not have the ability to help myself. I am safe now. I’ve got this.” “I see how hard you’ve worked to protect me. You have always been a loyal friend.”
“We are not alone anymore. We are safe now.”

Speaking to the part of yourself that continues to be afraid to feel the unhealed wound of the past: “I see you. I feel your pain.” “I’m so sorry that happened to you.” “You aren’t alone in this anymore. I’m here with you.” “You are safe now. I’ve got you” “You aren’t alone anymore. It’s ok to let go.” “I’ve got your back. I’m watching your corners.” “Let’s do this together.” “Bring me in with you. I want to walk this out with you.”

Imagine someone in your life that you hold dear; a child, grandparent, partner, friend, parent. Imagine they are feeling vulnerable, afraid and alone. How might you compassionately respond to them?

Continue to play with different phrases that resonate for you. Developing a self-compassionate inner voice is an important part of the process. In doing so, by compassionately witnessing what is, especially when it is different from what we want it to be, we are turning unconditional positive regard inward.

Managing “Weather” with Secure and Healthy “Roots”

Circling back to the tree illustration on page 9, those with more congruence and sense of coherence have deeper, more resilient roots, enabling them to feel grounded and resourced despite the weather swirling around them. An event is the weather that gets our attention. It can arise from our thoughts, emotions, and body sensations, or from our relationships with others and the natural world. Events themselves don’t cause stress. It is whether or not we perceive the event as threatening to our basic needs. If we perceive a threat, our stress response is activated. A thunderstorm may feel exciting to one person and terrifying to another. When we feel confident in our resources, weather can be beneficial. Conversely when we feel overwhelmed by insecurity, we don’t trust our abilities to manage the weather. As a result, our more secure self shrinks into the back seat, and our more primitive protector takes over. Enter the nervous system. The stress response is activated, and we react by fighting, fleeing, freezing or fawning.

As with the natural world, the conditions that roots develop in influences our ability to thrive. There are toxic elements present in the cultures and systems we germinate in. For example, the chronic experience of pervasive systemic oppression, based on a colonial belief system that views different ‘ways of being’ as threats. These perceived threats can include any deviation from the dominant norm, including biological, cultural, and personal variations. Unexpected aggressions – both macro and micro – of racism and discrimination can be experienced as chronic threatening conditions. In this case, the solution is often a mix of empowered action to improve one’s environment, and the development of resilience and the resources required to navigate factors that cannot be changed; discerning between the two can be challenging! For instance, if we are in an environment where we are considered a visible minority, we may not be able to change how people view and even treat us in day to day life. However, we can develop relationships with people who see us for who we are, and the self-compassion to reach out when I don’t feel safe. This can buffer us from the realities of discrimination, and may help us feel empowered to confront racism and other forms of discrimination.

With deep roots, we are more likely to recognize and resolve common threatening events such as ambiguity (where it is unclear what is expected of us), relational conflict, and the unpredictable nature of our personal and work environments before they become chronic stressors. In life and work environments that have frequent unmanaged threats to basic human needs, we will be distracted, even disabled from thriving.

To engage in frequent thriving, there are two environmental requirements:

  1. Outer environment: Physical and relational environments in the outer world which provide us with a sense of confidence that our basic human needs will be met, that our true nature will be accepted without condition and
  2. Inner environment: The security, space and capability to connect to listen to and feel our emotional messengers, providing us with the objectivity, inspiration, and confidence to authentically express ourselves in the outer world.