When we are in danger or feel we are under threat, the alarm system in our brain will be activated.
Our brains were designed to assess danger very quickly. It is done automatically, without us thinking about it. The brain will decide the following:
- Can I fight this danger?
- If not, can I run away from this danger?
- If not, then I will freeze or flop until the danger has passed.
Once the danger has passed or been dealt with, the alarm system will be turned off and the body goes back to a relaxed frame of mind. The adrenaline and cortisol which was pumped into your body to deal with the danger are naturally absorbed back into the body (this is where people who are in shock can start to shake – this is the body getting rid of the adrenaline and cortisol).
How do I heal from one-off dangers?
Sometimes, these single event dangers can be deeply traumatic and the brain is unable to switch off and will keep reliving the event. This reliving can be in the form of flashbacks, nightmares, feeling tense or jumpy, feeling depressed, lacking in motivation, avoiding reminders of the event e.g. not driving a certain route because you had the car accident on that road. If this is happening to you, then EMDR can help the brain move the event to a lived experience, rather than one that is still happening.
Developmental trauma (feeling continually unsafe as a child)
So, what happens to your brain’s alarm system, if as a child you regularly felt unsafe? There is a huge range of reasons why a child would not feel safe growing up. Here are a few examples:
- Being witness to parents fighting and shouting with another
- Being witness to parents drinking heavily or taking drugs
- Being bullied at school by peers or teachers
- Being sexually or physically abused
- Living in poverty
- Receiving no or limited emotional support and encouragement from your primary care givers
- Moving frequently, which prevented you from making friends
- Having to deal with illness (either yourself) or a primary care giver
- Family dealing with early bereavement due to illness, suicide or accident
If you experienced the above, then it is likely your brain alarm’s system was on high alert most of the time by scanning each situation to how you could respond. It is common for children who have experienced developmental trauma to keep their alarm system on into adulthood. Not realising that the alarm system no longer needs to be on, all of the time.
How do I heal from developmental trauma?
EMDR can help your brain acknowledge that it is no longer in danger. That the adult part of you, can now take control of situations (which you could not do as a child) and therefore, the alarm system can be turned off, and only be switched on when there is a real danger.
The website www.mindmypeelings.com gives a good description of what your brain does when it is on ‘alert’. The brain can either react by going into ‘hyperarousal’ state or ‘hypoarousal’ state. Part of the EMDR therapy will help you recognise which state you are in and bring you into a state of tolerance, so you can manage the painful memories of your past.