When confronted with an outer danger, we humans basically have four defencesystems to chose from. Well, chose may not be the right word. It may be the diamentral opposite, namely that when we do not manage life, strategies are chosen for us. These strategies are hitting us, when there seems to be no other way out. This will always leave us with a feeling of lost control, defeat and ultimately a trauma, that can steal all our happiness, our health and even life itself!
What is psychological trauma?
So what is a psychological trauma? When an incident becomes too much, too soon or too often, we have to protect our selves and avoid the consequences, thus we displace it. To better comprehend the three possibilities, let us have some examples.
If your income dryes up, it comes to a point, where you have cut expences to the bone. Your depth is growing by the day. Allready years in advance you have seen the family empire break down. It comes at no surprise, when the foreclosure is a fact. And yet it can be traumatic, simply because it is too much.
When your grandmother dies from some kind of for instance cancer, it is rather predictably and should not pose any surprise to you. And yet it can. If you are closely tied to your old grandma, you think you know her, that you share small secrets with each other, and then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, she dies! Had she shared with you, that her state of health had deteriorated through the last 10 years, you might not have got the chock. But she did not, and now it simply came too soon!
The classmates tell the boy, he looks wierd with his red hair. It is harmless, is it not? Who cares. And yet, as time passes, these dayly negative voices add up. During hollydays, the boy chered up, because he got a break from the bullying. Parents and teachers talk about it, the other parents are involved, and still it happens again and again, tiny dropplets leading the unhappy boy to commit suicide. It simply happened too often!
Yet, this definition is not perfect. Because something can fit one of the three above, and still not create trauma. Because without a significant impact on ones life, no trauma is created. What about:
- Eating too much icecream?
- Sticking the finger too soon with a needle?
- A fly sitting too often in the face?
Ok, maybe you have got the picture of, what we call a psychological trauma.
The five human defensesystems
In order to understand our amazing survival techniques though, we need to study some aspects of the development of man. In simple terms we can say, that all trauma can be sorted in five stages:
- Loss of freedom of attention
- Bending conscience for convenience
- Giving up social abilities and residing on your own
- Life threatening situations demands fight or flight
- Escape is no more possible: The body choses coma
These five stages are inherently connected to the development of life and originate at different states of said development. The first two of them are purely human phenomenons and therefore relatively new, seen from an evolutionary point of view.
The third one – loosing social abilities during unrest – can only creatures do, that have social abilities in the first place, mammals that is.
The fourth is the reptilian approach to problems: Eat or get eaten! Fight or flee!
As the fifth comes the oldest of all defence systems: Shut down, wait and see, if you are still alive, when you wake up! This is the ultimate state of defeat. This is the actual traumatization. The other four are steps leading to it.
Loss of freedom of attention
Now we will walk you through the five defence systems, starting out with the one, that is most often compromized.
Every human being resambles a king. A king without commoners that is. Because the need for commoners is a devastating one, as it initiates a state of ever lasting war. If you decide to go for being a king with commoners, how would you attract them? How would you decide, who have to become your commoner? Whenever humans tried this approach, it was decided with the sword.
Even in the most loyal commoner ljures slumbering the wish to become a king himself. And because his mind is already twisted through his experience as a commoner, he is most likely to try to dethrone his king and take his place. Dethronement very often comes at the price of one or more heads; either the fallen kings one, or those of the illoyal commoners.
Ok, this war of kings, deprivated of commoners, is a thing of the past. It belonged to the dark ages. And yet, this war has by no means come to an end. Only the battlefields have changed. It is no more the Normans fighting at Hastings 1066 or the american colonists defeating the English Crown at Yorktown in 1781.
Now the battlefield has reached every dinnertable and classroom. The kingdom to protect is the one inside everyone of us, and there is no mercy! The war starts out immediately with the birth with the question: Are the diplomatic relations between the kingdoms regarded? Do your parents reconnize your inner kingdom? Do the midwife respect your holiness, or does she treat you as another minor thing, to be stored with the other noisy newcomers, away from the exhausted mothers need for rest at the maternity clinic?
The weapons to be used are those of authority. The mother will demand, her children listen at the table: «Quiet kids, now your mother is talking!» The teacher will demand, that the students listen in the class: «Quiet now, you can talk in the recess!» Or when stopped by the police officer, he usually tries the same approach by stating: «Now I am the one asking the questions, and you are to answer!»
Here most of us very soon understand, that there is no such thing as diplomatic immunity. That the inner kingdom is by no means regarded. To the opposite, if you wish to survive this earthal life, you have to forget about this stubbornly idea, give in to it and understand, somebody else owns and controls your attention. You have the freedom of thougth, but not when and where to think. In fact, in our democratic times of freedom, the only thing you are not alowed to do, is to controll your own attention.
With this dirty trick the first wall of defense is broken, and the kingdom lies open to be raided. As none of the following is possible without breaking this frontier, it is called the mother of all abuse.
The integrity of a lizard is hard to compromize. It is very much hardwired. Not so with humans. In religious terms we have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and have been expelled from the Garden of Eden!
This story repressents the fact, that humans have abilities, that surpas those of any other animal on earth. We can think. We can abstract from the now and reexperience yesterday or prepare for tomorrow. We can outwit any other animal. We feed them for the only purpose of cutting their flesh for money. They cannot grasp it. We set up traps, and they walk right in again and again. Even clever animals like wolwes do it predictably.
Eating and mating is not enough for humans. Being fed only means, that we have surplus to do more!
We are driven by the quest for knowledge. It does not matter, whether it is about understanding God or finding the deapest spot on the ocean floor; to do it, to walk it all the way through, pays of like nothing else. The best caviar or cognac in the world cannot compare, nor any amount of money! This is solely human!
We are driven by greed and lust. From all the things, humans can imagine and perform, one is the most infamous of them all: Malice. Luckily it has a twinn. The knowledge of the Tree of Good and Evil incorporates conscience. Without it, the world might go to hell with all there is to it.
Everybody will regularly have to chose conciously between conscience and convenience. A classical example is known from the town Wittenberg in Deutschland. Martin Luther, priest in the Chatolic Church, witnessed with rising reluctance the practice of indulgences. It came to the point, where he drew a line in the sand: He nailed his 95 theses on the churchdoor in 1517. This incident is famous for his words: «Here I stand, I can do no other!».
When goups of different interests clash together, when one group wants to force their will through on the costs of the other, integrity is put to the test. With the first defence – the right to control your own attention – long fallen, the next one is up. When we let go of conscience and truth, something is broken within our selves. We bow to the group pressure, knowing it is wrong. We accept the bombs in North Africa and pay a few bucks to Red Cross refugee camps.
A saying goes like this: «There is no such thing as a dumb question!» Most peoples agree. And yet, this is not, what we practice. Because, when you have compromized you conscience, then certain questions – namely those, that question and chalenge the untrue decicion – become unpopular. They will often be met with impatience and hate rather that curiousity.
On a society level we see a propaganda war, trying to decide on your behalf, what is right and wrong. It is ok to bomb Iraq, but not ok to leave your dog in the car on a warm day!
This is an indication, that conscience – as the second bullwork of defence – has fallen victim.
Mammals – and especially humans – as opposed to fish, birds and reptiles have the ability to socialize. Penguines or herings join forces too, but not for the sake of a happy time. They create a safe space to live in, a defendable biotope. But with mammals; you can see how horses, dogs, lions, rats, you name it, enjoy spending time together. And more so we humans indeed do!
According to their development mammals have different registers of feelings, which we humans also are familiar with. They have social skils and influence each other. Licking the face signals joy, acceptance and connection. A wheeze is a threat and demands the opponent to stop or retreat.
In order to enjoy a happy time together we do need the safe space too, like the penguins. When established, we can expand our social abilities, resting upon the safe biotope. We talk and listen to our friends voices, we hear and understand language. We reconnize faces and facial expressions, we turn our heads freely to face the ones, we appreciate and love. We want to play, explore, quarrel and cuddle. We express joy and sorrow, excitement and anger, through the languages of vocalisation, of the body and the face.
As opposed to the reptiles, mammals are free to chose how to respond to other beings. Should you bother to give to opponent a lesson? Or is it better to give it a break? The nervous system of the mammals has an efficiency at another level than the reptiles. This is why dolphins overrule sharks!
This all is due to a modern branch of the vagus nerve, the so called ventral vagus. The more safe we feel, the more the vagal tone increases and enables us to use certain will controlled muscles in the neck, ear and face. It also inhibits stress and slows the heartrate to allow growth and healing. Heart rate variability (HRV) has become a buzzword, partly because the hearts ability to respond flexibly disappears during stress, partly because it is mesurable with nonintrusive methods and it indicates the level of vagal tone. In other words, we want and we pay for anything, that lets us hope for and believe in higher HRV and vagal tone.
Well, in actuallity, there are some more nerves involved. The vagus nerve is counted as the tenth cranial nerve. The complexity of the human social skils is supported by the fifth, seventh, nineth and eleventh cranial nerves. But for convenience, let´s forget about them.
Whenever unrest disrupts the happy hour, the good mood vanishes, the vagal tone decreases and we become indifferent to each other.
A shopping story
To illustrate how human social abilities work, I will tell you a short story from back then, when I was a student. From some unknown reason my attention was caught by an adverticement: A shop offered a limited number of ski suits extremely cheap. Why did i pay attention? I really dont know. Never once had I ever had skies at the feet, and I had no intention of doing so in close proximity. Maybe I was bored? Maybe greedy? But the point being, I went for it.
The offer started at 9 o´clock in the morning. I did not intend to miss it, thus I was out before the sun showed its presense. Arriving at 7 am. I was not the first at the scene though. Three or four guys were already standing in front of the glass door. Someone was chewing on his breakfirst, and I was greated kindly and offered some coffee.
The athmosphere was kind and kosy. Now and then yet another came by and found his place in the queue. Stories from holydays in wild skiterrain were shared, whilst we were jumping to keep warm.
Around 8 o´clock the athmosphere changed. Now more people came by and we – the early birds, who knew each others names and kept order – lost track. It became a herd of maybe 80 onknown peoples, strangers. From behind a pressure build up and the small talk diminished. Nobody offered coffee any more. I stopped looking around to search for eye contact. The voices melted and drowned in the noise of the crowd and the traffic.
The magic of the moment was gone. Closing in at 9 o´clock the tension build up. People were alerted and on their toes. Then exactly at 9 am a man came from inside the glasdoor asking: «Would somebody like to buy a ski suit?» The door opened and a wave flooded through. As I was amongst those closest to the door, I was formly carried by the wave. In a split second I found my self lying at a table, where the ski suits disappeared underneath my but faster than fast.
Looking around I saw a busy shop full of shopping people, that I did not know, and with whom I had little in common. I knew, the party was over, and I headed home without the game!
Fight or flight
Weight and size equal, mammals will outmaneuver reptiles. But even mammals can be pushed into a corner, where the situation becomes dangerous. Then the hormones will overrule the clever skils and force the mammal back to the same level as the reptile: Fight or flight!
Reptiles do not think in a human sense of the word. Something like: «Wow, what a wiev; look at the mountains and the ocean over there!» The reptile brain doesn´t even feel compromized or happy. It simply is. This is reflected in the stiff mask of snakes and crocodiles. They are like machines, like robots. Their sourcecode is hardwired in their instincts.
Reptiles don´t even have feelings. Sensations will have to suffice to them. Different sensations will trigger different actions. If the snake cools down, it searches the sun to warm up again. Is there no sun, it hides away and wait for times to come.
Is the reptile satisfied, it rests and digests. When hunger strikes, it goes hunting. Confronting other creatures, the reptile basically knows three ways: Indifference, conquer and eat or run for life.
This plays out in the autonomous nerveous system, in the interaction between the sympathetic and the parasympatetic nervous system, basically working through hormoneproducing glands and adequate receptors.
When danger occurs, the body tries to prepare as best it can. What ever pleasures we just enjoyed, they are forgotten. What ever we just ate, it is forgotten and there is no attention to digestion, nor to restitution. It is shut down for the benefit of reconnizing and calculating the movements of the enemy, for running or fighting.
In terms of nervous system the situations conserning pleasure, eating, mating and thriving are managed by the parasympaticus, whereas the fight or flight mode is triggered by the sympaticus.
Like with the dorsal vagus, the human sympaticus is triggered by dangers provoking the bodys defensesystems. But where the dorsal vagus shuts down or slows down all functions in the body in order to save resources, sympaticus shuts down those, that would slow you down and trigger those, that makes you strong and alert.
Though the origin of the sympaticus is the spinal cord, the bodily reactions are mainly hormonal ones; unlike the dorsal vagus response being a neural such, hardwired to the organs. As a response to danger, sympaticus triggers several glands over two pathways: The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathoadrenal medullary (SAM) axis. They immediately flood the bloodstream with an array of homones adressing different organs and processes. Here are some of the bodily responses:
- Acceleration of heart and lung action
- Paling or flushing, or alternating between both
- Inhibition of stomach and upper-intestinal action
- Closing of valves in digestion system
- Constriction of blood vessels not involved in fight or flight
- Liberation of fat and glycogen for muscular action
- Dilation of blood vessels for muscles
- Inhibition of tear production and salivation
- Dilation of pupil
- Relaxation of bladder
- Inhibition of erection
- Loss of hearing
- Loss of peripheral vision
- Activation of fight or flight mode
The fight or flight modus is meant to get done with the danger. If that does not happen for some reason or another, the stress persists, and the lack of restitution will over time burn all resources in the body causing fatique and cronic disease and eventually – you guessed it – burnout. For instance, when you are unable to pay the mortgages, your subconcious may want to run in order to escape the dangerous accident of bankrupsy.
Residing in the fight or flight mode makes it impossible to restitute. It keeps us in a permanent state of war, a beta state of mind. Any object – regardless of living or dead, of plant, animal or human – will be meet in the reptilian way: It will either be considered an enemy, a useful or indifferent object.
If a danger is big enough, if your body realizes – or somehow believes – that there is no hope, it pushes the final button and the curtain closes. This is a very old defence system, predating the reptiles. Many insects will use the technique of shutting down physiological processes, when the surroundings do not support them. In some respect we can say the same about plants too! Thus one might wonder, why it is alowed to overrule the supreme thinking capabilities of modern man.
Well, man has his limits too. When pushed to the limits some senses may become confused, leaving your calculating brain with possibly fatal conclusions. Actually you may find your self, in your concious mind, capable of negotiating with a tiger, or to veeeeery soon find a shelter in the ever lasting snowstorm, where as some subconcious part of you decides to stop the game and shuts down. This action is submitted through the reptile part of the vagus nerve, also called the dorsal vagus. It reveals its reptilian nature in the fact, that it is crude and unmyelinated; that is not insulated. Like in short circuiting. In contrast to the highly developed mammal/social brain structures, it is imprecise. Which does its job just fine, in that it lames everything with one stroke. It literally pulls the plug, and you will experience an immediate black out. Ok, experience may be excagerated.
The vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve and is also called the pneumogastric nerve, because it shuts down all life supporting organs in order to keep the body alive as long as possible with no help from outside. Breath, circulation, temperature, digestion, secretion and so on is limited to an absolute minimum.
This makes it possible for the body to survive extreme situations like being submerged with the lungs full of water, with body temperature way belov normal, without eating, without even experiencing pain; should we become eaten by the previously mentioned tiger.
This shut down mechanism is both very natural and highly convenient. Normally in nature a shut down only has a short duration. The dear, hunted down by a predator, will either escape or become eaten. It only takes minutes for the faith to determine the outcome. Fighting a grave snowstorm will also come to an end rather soon, although within some hours or a few days at worst.
These natural examples do in no way compete with circumstances created by humans, and of whom animals – and nature – have no idea at all. Adequatly our animal-body has no defence mechanism to cope with them either.
Most enduring shut down states originate in circumstances from birth or before. How can that be? The simple answer is, that most often the pregnant woman is occupied with something outside of her body and has no or little attention to the child. She is occupied with her studies, career, business or argumenting with her husband. The embryo has no capacity to comprehend or understand the situation of the mother. For the child the mother is gone, when the attention is gone. And nothing is more traumatic and dramatic for an embryo, than realising, that the mother is not there. She obviously does not exist in the reality of the embryos consiousness!
The hidden guardian
We have found and described five different levels of defending our humanness. When we are challenged, the defenses break down starting with the youngest and taking one step at a time, back in time though the development of mammals, reptiles and maybe as far back as plantlife. The first to go are the core manifestations of what represents the human being as opposed to lower species: Integrity, conscience and social abilities, leaving the most crude and physically devastating as the last options of survival.
A strange thing here is, that it seems like it is the older system, that helps out the newer. Statements like: «I just lost control, then it happened!» are common after emergency situations. To whom do we lose control, one could ask? To the systems supporting the human ability to feel like, incorporate and express him self from the center and outward: I!
The reptilian system of fight or flight takes over, when the social abilities have no more chances. The plant state takes over, when fight or flight are exhausted with no survival in sight.
One might be tempted to think, that the newer systems would be superior in any matter. That is evidently not the case.
This implies, that all systems actually are awake at any time. The newer systems are merely alowed to overrule the older ones, as long as it is beneficial. But without hesitation, without mercy they shut each other of, when needed.
The last thing to ponder is: How does the body know, to wake up from the dead? When the body is cold, when there is no breath and the heart is silent, when there are no signals in the nervous system and the physician signs the death certificate, from where does the signal come, telling the body to wake up? Which kind of consiousness is this? Where does it reside?