What do world-class-athletes and special-forces combat soldiers have in common? They both perform, very well, under high stress and pressure, what might for us be a traumatic experience. How do they do that? It is the very same process used as the key ingredient in healing trauma.
To understand how some people can perform so well under acute stress and almost unbearable pressure, without becoming traumatized, and how people heal from trauma, we need to understand a little bit about how our brain works. Without getting overly technical, there are two pertinent functions of the brain involved, our executive functions, and our emotions. The executive functions, such as rational thinking and planning are referred to as higher brain functions. Our emotions, such as feelings of joy, and fear, are more basic brain functions. When we are in high stress situations, we are often frightened. The more basic brain functions, primary of which is survival, become highly activated and over-ride our higher brain functions. This is a basic neurological wiring for survival. When we are in situation of perceived danger or very high stress, we don't think, we automatically react with what is called the 'fight or flight' response. If we cannot fight, and cannot flee, we are trapped, stuck, frozen. And that then becomes the trauma. Being stuck, frozen, for an extended period of time; not being able to fight or flee, not being able to act, in a high stress, dangerous, painful, scary, situation, is a traumatic event.
When in this traumatic situation of being stuck, trapped, frozen, unable to think or plan, and at the mercy of our emotional brain centers, our higher brain functions are actually shut down, offline, not available. It is as if our emotional brain has hijacked our higher brain, kind of like a classroom of unruly kids taking over and disallowing the teacher from performing their assigned duties. But, those unruly kids are being told there is a crisis! Because our higher brain functions have to do with planning, when they are shut down, we don't have a sense of past or future. We are in the immediate present, which in a traumatic situation, is scary, frightening and may be painful. So, any time we remember this traumatic situation, even months, or years, after it has happened, our higher brain function shuts down again, goes offline, and we believe the stress and danger is real, right now. The brain does not distinguish between memory and fantasy. It is visual imagery, rapid commentary, and complex changes in breathing, skin response, neuro-chemistry and awareness. The brain does want to resolve this trauma, and so we do have intrusive thoughts, memories, flashbacks, in an attempt to help us get unfrozen, to fight, or flee, or do something. But, what happens is we just get re-traumatized because there is nothing to fight, and no-where-to-flee; We are again stuck, traumatized. What if we could maintain our higher brain functions even in high stress? Even in neutralizing the trauma?
How do we get back our higher brain functions? How can we reinstate our executive functions? How can we think, clearly, and know that the trauma is not now, is not a threat or a danger anymore? There are two points to consider along these lines. One, as mentioned in Waking The Tiger, by Peter A. Levine, a classic book in the field of sexual abuse and trauma recovery, is learning how to 'shake it off.' Animals in the wild, pursued by a predator, and escaping, are not traumatized the next day, or next month, or next year. Somehow, they shake it off. Exercise, vigorous and demanding, is a way of shaking it off. There is an interesting proximity to the word 'exercise' and 'exorcise.' We need to exorcise the build-up of stress chemicals in the body which have had no outlet, no opportunity to fight, or flee, and exercise is a good way of doing that. The other helpful approach is learning how to relax the body. In a relaxed body, the higher brain functions are much less susceptible to being hijacked by the emotions. A lot of trauma therapy is based on pairing a relaxed state of body, and mind, with exposure to traumatic memories. This can result in the executive functioning of the brain, distinguishing between past, present and future, between seeing, and feeling, the trauma as something in the past, not the present; and that goes a long way in diminishing symptoms. The trauma itself is now seen as a historical event, one which does not pose a threat to the present. This is the key in healing trauma. It's not a trauma anymore. We need to relax before we can make the distinction between then and now.
We generally don't know how to relax the body well. It is something we need to learn how to do. By taking proactive steps in learning how to relax the body before a stressful situation, we are more likely to be the executive than the unruly child in that stressful situation, which itself can be an effective prophylactic to trauma.