We have seen how the experience of severe and protracted childhood trauma can damage the development of the brain’s amygdala, leaving us, as adults, prone to chronic anxiety and a sense of being ‘stuck on red alert’ / trapped in a state of perpetual ‘fight or flight.’ Indeed, being locked into this state of hypervigilance is a hallmark of complex posttraumatic stress disorder (complex PTSD) which some victims of childhood trauma go on to develop.
Such a state, as I know from my own experience, can be intensely painful and affect one on four levels :
- a cognitive level
- a behavioural level
- an emotional level
- a physical level
Let’s look at each of these in turn. According to Pullins (2016), these four levels may be associated with the following types of pain :
THE COGNITIVE LEVEL :
- proneness to interpreting people and situations negatively even when objectively unwarranted
- proneness to view others as hostile even when not objectively warranted
- a preoccupation with pain
- dysfunctional alterations of personality
- distortion of perception of personal control (this can involve both underestimation and overestimation)
THE BEHAVIORAL LEVEL :
- irritability and hostility
- social withdrawal
THE EMOTIONAL LEVEL :
- fear, anxiety, panic, chronic worry
- proneness to explosive rage
THE PHYSICAL LEVEL :
- loss of libido
- muscle tension
- vision disorders
REDUCING PAIN ASSOCIATED WITH THE ABOVE FOUR LEVELS :
According to Pullins, in order to reduce the above types of pain generated by being ‘stuck’ in the ‘fight/flight survival mode’, and the distress that it causes, it is necessary for us to: REDUCE THE OVER-ACTIVITY OF OUR SYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM.
In order to achieve this, it is necessary to INCREASE THE ACTIVITY OF THE PARASYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM (so that the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system return to an optimal level of balance) which is CONDUCIVE TO FEELINGS OF REST AND RELAXATION.
HOW DO WE ACHIEVE A COMFORTABLE BALANCE BETWEEN THE ACTIVITY OF THE SYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM AND THE ACTIVITY OF THE PARASYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM?
Pullins suggests we can help ourselves achieve this balance, and, thus, free ourselves from being permanently locked into the pain-inducing fight/flight state, through the following activities :
- mindfulness meditation
- relaxation techniques
- diaphragmatic breathing
- engaging with others socially
- undertaking meaningful activities persistently and with pacing
- undertaking pleasurable activities/hobbies
- writing about our thoughts and feelings in a journal
- distracting our attention from an unremittingly negative focus
- reframing pain
- positive self-talk
- verbal communication
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).