The human race has evolved to deal with trauma and needs traumas to develop responses to dangerous situations. For example we know animals can be dangerous by dealing with the first trauma of seeing an animal attack a human and how that knowledge is passed down the generations. Sometimes however trauma can be overwhelming and not be dealt with in the normal way a human brain does. Normally if a trauma happens the Amygdala will take a snapshot of the cause and associate that with the trauma. The Hippocampus will take a more detailed version of the memory and should be able to recall that when the Amygdala notices one of these trauma warning signs thus stopping the trauma reactions from taking place.
Trauma reactions often come in steps, the first step being fight or flight. The second is dissociation and the third is immobility. The Limbic system is the trigger for these; the Amygdala is part of the limbic system but the reactions to this is controlled by the brain stem or reptilian brain. These are meant to be tempered by the Hippocampus which should control your reactions to the warning sign from the Amygdala. In some cases the Hippocampus is suppressed by cortisol a brain chemical secreted during fight or flight and this can most often happen in cases of post traumatic stress disorders and associated disorders like non-epileptic attack disorder.
When you do fall victim to the 3 steps you can have various effects. Fight or flight reactions vary and can have many symptoms. You can find out more about fight or flight symptoms on our anxiety symptoms explained page. Dissociation is where a person can feel unreal, drift off into their own world or be consumed by something totally different that isn’t the task at hand. This can lead to people being unresponsive or clumsy among other things.
Immobility is like the mouse playing dead when caught by the cat. It stops the predator from feeling the thrill of the case and may make them disinterested. This is the last resort defense mechanism used by the brain stem to protect ourselves. In humans, this can in disorders like non-epileptic attack disorder lead to collapsing, fainting and seizures. While very scary particularly in non-epileptic attack disorder it isn’t life threatening but can be dangerous depending on where the seizures happen.
The trauma trigger can get very sensitive and the best way to decrease that is to learn how to feel your body again. This grounds you to the here and now and along with techniques such as rubbing ones hands together helps a person not to dissociate and not progress to the Immobility stage. This allows the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex more of a chance to take over and stop the trauma response and for the person to regain control.