Tommy is a Ph.D. candidate in Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology at West Virginia. He is also an EMDR-trained psychotherapy intern at Whole Brain Solutions in Morgantown, West Virginia
LinkedIn Link: https://www.linkedin.com/in/tommyminkler/
Stress, Trauma, and the Nervous System: How Short-Term Adaptations Can Lead to Long-Term “Dis-ease”
When we experience situations that are stressful or traumatic, our brains become overwhelmed. The primary job of our nervous system is to keep up alive, so in the face of real or perceived threats to survival, our brain will limit the number of responses we have: fighting, running away, freezing, and people pleasing are common stress responses that our brains will generate. If you really think about it, those four categories of responses are immensely helpful and adaptive for coping—in the short term. They help us deal with the overwhelming experiences of the present moment, even though the longer-term effects of how we engage in some of those strategies can be maladaptive. The issue is that our brain/nervous system, again, in an effort to keep us alive, store stressful and traumatic experiences differently than memories with a lesser emotional charge. Traumatic memories are stored in a chaotic, state-specific, and fragmented way. In order to keep us safe, any time a situation feels remotely similar to the previously stressful or traumatic experience, our brain will put us on alert and limit our responses to whatever was helpful in the past. Stress limits our access to the parts of our brain that allow us to reason and make logical choices, because when we need to survive, its actually really not that helpful to spend too much time thinking. We have to act, and our brains facilitate that action even when the scary or threatening experiences from the past are not part of our present reality.
So, it is not that there is something wrong with you if you are responding in ways that are maladaptive or unhelpful. Your brain is doing what it has evolved to do, repeating patterns and responding to situations in ways that were once incredibly adaptive in helping you cope, or in keeping you safe. What you experienced and how you responded demonstrate incredible resilience—and there are new ways of responding that can contribute to meaning, value, and fulfillment. This emphasis on past experiences is not an attempt to excuse present behavior, but rather to provide an explanation for it. Breaking the cycle can be a scary endeavor because there is some semblance of comfort in familiarity—even if it is contributing to dysfunctional patterns. Regardless of the degree and dimensions of pain and dis-ease, change and healing can take place through courage and connection.