We have seen that the experience of severe childhood trauma can lead to severe symptoms hyperarousal in adult life due to damage incurred to the development of the brain’s limbic system. Below I provide some definitions of hyperarousal:
- a state of increased psychological and physiological tension marked by such effects as reduced pain tolerance, anxiety, exaggerated startle response, insomnia, fatigue and the accentuation of personality traits
(Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medical, Nursing and Allied Health)
2. Excessive responsiveness to sensory stimulation.
3. A state of muscular and emotional tension produced by hormones during the fight or flight reaction.
(Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine)
If we are in a state of hyperarousal, the symptoms that it may induce in us include the following:
– an excessive proneness to outbursts of anger and rage, even in response to provocations which most would consider minor
– insomnia, especially difficulty falling asleep and frequent waking
– frequently feeling extremely on edge
– frequently feeling threatened as if we are in imminent danger
– impaired ability to concentrate
Although the state of hyperarousal, resulting in the fight or flight response, has evolved to help us survive when in REAL danger, it becomes dysfunctional when it is frequently, unnecessarily triggered, as can occur in those who have suffered significant childhood trauma.
For example, if we keep flying into rages due to small provocations (that don’t seem, to others, to warrant such a response) we may find it hard to maintain friendships and relationships.
It is also important to understand that a state of hyperarousal, such as rage and intense anxiety, may often be triggered in survivors of childhood trauma by unconscious causes.
For example, we may not realize that the reason we keep getting angry when interacting with authority figures is that they remind us, on an unconscious level, of an abusive parent (and also of the trauma we experienced as a result of that parent’s abuse). In other words, in such a situation, the brain is ‘tricked’ into believing that the anger we express towards the authority figure will protect us from the trauma our abusive parent caused us (or from similar trauma); the brain’s rule of thumb here appears to be something along the lines of, ‘once bitten, twice shy.’
WAYS IN WHICH WE CAN REDUCE OUR DYSFUNCTIONAL STATES OF HYPERAROUSAL:
1) We need to reassure ourselves that feelings of hyperarousal, such as increased heart rate and hyperventilation, can’t harm us and that we, therefore, don’t need to fear them (we won’t die from them or go ‘crazy’ as some in the grip of panic attacks – caused by extreme hyperarousal – fear).
2) We need to accept the feelings of hyperarousal as, paradoxically, trying hard to ‘fight’ them tends to increase their intensity
3) We need to allow our bodies to relax and dissipate muscular tension.
4) We need to allow ourselves to breathe slowly and gently rather than hyperventilate
5) Rather than try to ‘force’ unpleasant thoughts from our minds, we need to accept them and remind ourselves that they are only thoughts (which may, in any case, be wrong or inaccurate) and can’t harm us; in relation to this, one method is to treat our thoughts passing through our minds like leaves floating by on the surface of a stream – we can just observe them neutrally and non – judgmentally without getting caught up in them or emotionally engaging with them.
6) Reduce caffeine, nicotine and alcohol
7) Eat well, get sufficient sleep and relaxation, avoid stressful situations whenever possible, take regular exercise
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)