Brain scans reveal that the amygdala of a person who has experienced trauma in childhood is actually larger than those who have not experienced childhood trauma.
I don’t know about you, but I find myself asking myself the same question over and over again, Is it trauma or is it a real threat?
Our bodies and brains are truly amazing. They signal us when something is not right. They work together to move us into action or non-action to get us out of harm’s way.
An oversized amygdala, however, will communicate that there is a threat at times when there is no current threat, only a reminder of a previous one. A larger amygdala can result in a state of hypervigilence for many trauma survivors.
Even after years of therapy and my recent training to be a trauma recovery coach, I still struggle to tell the difference between a real or a perceived threat.
If you are dealing with the same struggle, I encourage you to be compassionate towards yourself. The ambivalence that comes about with this type of uncertainty can easily become a shame producer.
Writing is an act that helps me to transform my shame into curiosity. When I write what I am feeling I am better able to see all that is going on inside. As I can more clearly observe my shame, I can begin to slowly understand where it is coming from and how to process it in a healthy way.
Shame is never useful. When it is hidden away inside ourselves, we often develop maladaptive coping mechanisms to escape it. A few examples of these are overeating, overspending, drug use, or codependency, etc. I spent a lifetime trying to cope with my shame in unhealthy ways. Only when I started to write, could I discover what was happening inside and begin to experience relief. Now, when the all too familiar shame arises I am able to recognize it and process it rather than try to escape it. Writing has become what is called an adaptive coping mechanism for me. Adaptive coping Mechanisms are internal resources we discover on our healing journeys that can replace our maladaptive ones. Writing is just one example. It’s important that we each discover what is most helpful to us and allow it to become a practice in our daily lives.
Recently, my oversized amygdala kicked into overdrive. My first reaction was to fawn. Fawn is a reaction of our autonomic nervous system that causes us to react to a perceived threat by people pleasing. I started apologizing to the person in front of me for getting overwhelmed by their behaviors that reminded me of an abusive personality in my past. When I was a little girl, sometimes the only way to keep myself safe was telling my father what I knew would not upset him. He was the type of person who when in pain blamed others for what he was feeling. When I spilled the tea on the table by accident and he started to overreact by screaming, I apologized for making him overreact. It was the only way I could bring safety to the situation. If I argued with him, it would result in an escalating situation that would go from bad to worse. The individual standing in front of me recently had a similar way of reacting to problems. Rather than taking some responsibility for things going wrong, this individual shifted responsibility to others, and went on a tirade when he didn’t get what he wanted. He reminded me of my father after having only met him a few times. Initially, I didn’t understand what was happening. When he was standing in front of me going into a mini tirade, all kinds of emotions came up that were difficult to hide. I did what I knew best how to do smile and go along and agree. When I got home later that day, alarm bells started to go off inside my brain. They were so loud that I wanted to hide inside my house and never see this person again. I heard the words run. Get away as quickly as possible. It was unrealistic to avoid dealing with this person. I knew I would see them again. I needed to figure out a way that I could deal with this person in a healthy way. The first question that overwhelmed me was my reaction a trauma response or a real perceived threat. In this situation, I now recognize it was both. While this individual was not in a position to abuse and blame me as my father had, he was not a safe person to be around. When a person is unwilling to deal with their own responsibilities and is shifting blame to others, they can feel like a loaded weapon looking for the next target who could just as easily be you. I understood in my dealings with this individual that it was important to understand what my responsibilities were and what his were, and set clear boundaries for myself to protect myself from being harmed by him. Ultimately, I decided it was best for my emotional health to avoid this person. Thankfully, I was able to make changes that made this possible. If you are in a similar situation, I encourage you to be kind to yourself and find safe people to support you. Ask yourself what changes you can make to best take care of yourself.
When we are faced with the question is it real or is it trauma, it is most important that we acknowledge to ourselves that everything we feel is important. As a trauma survivor, there are changes in my brain that may cause me to overrespond to what feels threatening. However, I have discovered that these responses are happening for a legitimate reason. We should never minimize or cast them aside. Being kind to ourselves means we pay attention to all that we feel and process it in ways that are helpful. When we process our responses, sometimes we may discover that we just need to remind ourselves that we are adults who can take care of ourselves, and no longer children trapped in abusive situations. However, sometimes our trauma responses may give us insight to problems that may not get better and we can make the choice to remove ourselves from them. When we honor our responses, shame subsides and we are able to move forward into making choices that are best for us.
A tremendously helpful resource is a book I recently started reading The Gift by Edth Eger.
For more information on the fawn response, visit Pete Walker’s website.
Another great resource to learn more about our nervous system responses is Deb Dana’s Befriending Your Nervous System: Looking Through the Lens of Polyvagal Theory.