Stress and Trauma by Sara Waymont
Here we have an extract from her book “Yoga, PTSD and me “ Sara Waymont as well as running workshops at TLC , Sara does 1-2-1 Yoga Nidra sessions which is an incredible way to re teach your body how to deeply relax. Sara brings her own personal experience to enhance her work.
Stress and Trauma
Stress is a very general and often over-used term. We may be stressed in many different ways in this modern world and this stress ranges from the minor to the catastrophic; from standing in line, to missing a work deadline, to witnessing a car accident or serving in active combat.
Whatever the stressor, your body’s reaction to the stress is exactly the same. It doesn’t matter whether a tiger is about to eat you or someone just cut you up; your body will initially react to the stress in exactly the same way. It’s only the midline structures of the brain that determine the differences between the two stressors. You can flip the bird at the bad driver and you should probably run away from the big cat (I’m no tiger expert though, so you might want to check on that).
In either case, this is the response that is initiated:
FIGHT – FLIGHT – FREEZE - FLOP
When the mind becomes stressed, the body becomes stressed and a range of physiological changes occur, which prepare the body to fight, flee, freeze or flop (a form of freeze response) in the face of a perceived threat.
The sympathetic nervous system is activated and a cascade of hormones (adrenaline, norepinephrine, cortisol and endorphins) is released to better enable the body to survive the stressful event:
- Adrenaline prepares us to fight or flee.
- Norepinephrine heightens responsiveness (makes us hyper-alert).
- Cortisol conserves energy by curtailing non-essential functions/ functions that would interfere with the fight-flight-freeze-flop response.
- Endorphins reduce panic in order to increase chances of survival and reduce pain in the event of injury/ death.
Stress is a natural response to a perceived threat.
However, it doesn’t matter whether that threat is minor (e.g. your phone running out of battery) or life-threatening (e.g. a physical assault) your body reacts in the same way to both events.
In fact, more often than not, rather than face a real danger, these days we think ourselves into a state of stress.
“What if I miss that deadline?”
“The trains are running late, I’m going to be late for work!”
In the grand scheme of things, neither of these two things is really worth worrying about and, if you think about it, your worrying won’t change the course of events in any case. You can’t make a train arrive on time through the power of worry - you can only stress yourself out about its delayed arrival.
These everyday problems are the reason that so many of us in the modern world are chronically stressed. Every time we face a minor stressor our body reacts to it and there may be hundreds of minor stressors in any given day.
This leads to an accumulation of hormones that are not discharged, because we aren’t able to use the fight-flight-freeze-flop response in the way that nature intended (i.e. we wouldn’t normally physically attack our boss no matter how ridiculous his or her demands). This leads to us living with chronic stress and tension that manifests in various different ways.
You might want to look at the list below and see if you rare familiar with any of the tell-tale signs of chronic stress:
- Being easily distracted
- Feeling angry/being quick to anger
- Tension; both physical and mental
- Low self-esteem
- Weight gain
- Weight loss
- High blood pressure
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Self-medication with alcohol and/or drugs
This is by no means an exhaustive list. It merely serves as an example to demonstrate that the undischarged Stress Response can pervade many layers of our physical and mental being. We even grow so accustomed to some of these symptoms being part of our day-to-day state that we stop realising that they are present.
The following exercise gives you a chance to assess your own state:
If you want to, on a blank piece of paper or in your self-reflective journal, just take a moment to write down how many of the symptoms you recognise in yourself.
You could then categorise these symptoms into ‘Physical’, ‘Mental’ and ‘Emotional’ (there may be some cross-over between the categories).
Finally, I invite you to identify any obvious stressors that have led to each of the symptoms and to see if you can find a simple solution to eliminate them.
For example, you may always be running late for work, which causes you to have a headache throughout the day. A simple way to eliminate the stress would be to set the alarm a little earlier. Another possible way to remove the stressor would be to speak with your boss and ask if it would be possible to change your working hours so that you came in later, if you really do find mornings difficult.
There may not be a solution to every stressor, but even eliminating a few from your life should lead to an improvement in your symptoms. If there are fewer stressors there is less stress and, therefore, less chance for the undischarged Stress Response to accumulate.
For the person who has experienced trauma, the Stress Response is never turned ‘off’, which is, as you can reasonably imagine and perhaps have experienced, challenging for the body-mind complex on a whole number of different levels.
Feeling constantly stressed may lead to you becoming disconnected from the present moment, living in a state where you find it difficult to focus and get on with your everyday life. This in turn can lead to more stress and so it becomes a vicious cycle.
Simple ‘Grounding Techniques’, practices that bring you back to the present moment, can be a useful way to lower your stress levels, as they take you out of memories of the past or anxieties of the future.
You can use the following exercise to remind you that you are, in fact, in the present and not running from the remembered traumas of the past or the imagined stressors of the future. It’s a simple practice of active listening to sounds both near and far:
This exercise is about ‘grounding’, helping you to come back to the present moment when you feel anxious or encounter a triggering situation.
When you’re ready, I invite you to focus on all the sounds that are with you in this moment. What sounds can you hear close to you? See if you can focus on one particularly dominant noise, perhaps birdsong or traffic noise.
Then, once you have established which sounds are close by you in this moment, I invite you to extend your senses further afield and see if you can notice the sounds that are present in the distance.
If you feel comfortable, perhaps you would like to close your eyes and focus on the sounds that are far away. Then return again to the sounds that are close by.
Paying attention to the sounds that are with you right now, in this present moment, continue with this exercise for as long as you feel comfortable to do so and repeat as often as necessary for you.