“Wouldn’t it help if I were prepared for what happens to me?”
If you have experienced an extremely threatening event where you felt your life was in danger and you could not exert control to change it, you’ve experienced the “fight or flight” response. This is the body’s automatic reaction and it prepares you for lightening-speed decisions. The chemicals released cause an increase in your respiration rate and blood pressure, and blood is directed into your muscles and limbs for running and fighting. Your pupils dilate, awareness intensifies, sight sharpens as you scan and search the environment for danger.
Afterward we may revisit the event and wonder, wouldn’t it help if I were prepared for what happens to me? At the moment this thought appears, you may notice that you begin to feel similar body sensations as before. The heart pounds faster, you may begin to shake. This is the cognitive aspect of processing trauma. “What if…. If only…” – You want to be sure it never happens again. So the brain tries to remember and learn from the threatening event… “if only… I’ll never… “ and
“If only my life had background music so I could tell what the heck was going on!”
Think of storing memories as being like putting away groceries. When a person experiences a traumatic event, it’s like the memories were stored by shoving too much stuff into a cabinet. And anytime it gets opened, all the “stuff” explodes as it falls on your head.
If not processed properly, your experience can spiral into generalized anxiety and panic attacks, or worse – a syndrome called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With PTSD, ordinary events can serve as reminders of the trauma and trigger flashbacks or intrusive images. A flashback may make the person lose touch with reality and reenact the event for a period of seconds or hours, or very rarely, days. A person having a flashback, which can come in the form of images, sounds, smells, or feelings, usually believes that the traumatic event is happening all over again.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is best treated with a combination of psychotherapy and medications. People with PTSD should seek out a therapist with specific experience and background in treatment post-traumatic stress disorder.
If you have experienced a traumatic event and the “flight or flight” symptoms won’t go away, please consider counseling to help you cope. With a qualified therapist, you can learn new skills to help process, manage and resolve the distressing thoughts and feelings related to the traumatic life events.
Here are 8+ ways to quiet the overactive stress response:[i]