Trauma and Your Nervous System - Counseling & Therapy Services - The Juniper Center

Letting Go of How You “Should” Respond

Two people can experience the same event very differently. That’s true whether someone is experiencing trauma first-hand or vicariously through the news.

One person may be temporarily upset but not feel any long-term impact. Another person, however, can have the same experience and find their nervous system is dysregulated, they’re having nightmares, intrusive thoughts, or flashbacks.

What influences our nervous system responses?

One variable as to why two people can have such different experiences after watching the same event is simply one’s nature: how your nervous system reacts to the world in general, your core beliefs, and life experiences. For example, someone who tends to be more anxious already may likely react more strongly than someone who doesn’t experience that regularly.

A second variable is what we tell ourselves about how we “should” respond. When how you feel is different than how you believe you should respond to a situation, that can cause feelings of self-doubt or wondering if something is wrong with you—which in turn can exacerbate the very feelings you are trying to manage!

It’s not you. It’s your brain.

Your brain is exquisitely designed to detect danger. As much as we would like the prime directives of being human to be pleasure and happiness, what our brains and our bodies want, and what we are evolutionarily programmed for, is survival.

When we undergo or witness a traumatic event, the survival centers of our brains fire up and take over. If you looked at your brain on a heat map amid a crisis, your pre-frontal cortex—the thinking, rational parts of your brain—literally dims and becomes less active as the emotional or survival centers of your brain take charge. Our brain goes on heightened alert so that we can prepare and protect ourselves.

The problem is that for some people, your brain doesn’t register when the actual event is over.

Or, in the case of vicarious trauma—your brain stays on heightened alert even though you may be watching the event on a screen, sitting at home. It’s very hard for us to get that part of our brain to stand down once activated. You can’t just tell yourself, “knock it off! Feel better.” Once your nervous system is in full fight, flight, or freeze mode, you need to do something deliberate to re-regulate how your nervous system is responding.

Empathy is critical.

Just as you must give yourself permission to feel what you are feeling, support from others is equally important. Having someone in your life who acknowledges your experience, who says “that was horrible,” helps. Having someone tell you “you’re fine” or “move on” does not. The worst thing you can do for somebody who is stuck in rumination or a traumatic response is to tell them “just don’t think about it.”

How trauma shows up in your body can be radically distinct for different people.

Let go of how you “should” feel and understand that a wide range of responses is normal. Don’t compare yourself to others. Be kind to yourself. Be gentle.


This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.


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