Mental health - emotions and the effect on the body
When we experience strong emotions we try to process what is happening to us. As well as involving the logical brain this has an effect on the physical body. When traumatic events occur physical feelings of discomfort in the stomach, chest and other ares of the body are common. Images, sound and smells may become very focussed in trauma situations.
If these situations are not processed by the brain and resolved they will generally leave a person hypervigilant to the sensory information that was around at the time of the distressing event. For example a loud firework going off and the soldier hitting the deck. The soldier is hypervigilant to sudden loud bangs. Hypervigilance to threat can include conscious and unconscious memories; these can be triggered by smells, places, people music or other sounds. The person is not always aware of these triggers, however, they may experience extreme emotions due to these unconscious triggers.
The result is that often stress hormones are triggered and defensive movements and emotional responses keep getting replayed in inappropriate situations in normal daily life. This experience of constantly fighting unseen danger leaves them exhausted, fatigued and often depressed. They are not fully alive in the present but are imprisoned in the past by these conscious and unconscious responses.
Physical responses occur, for example migraines, increased blood pressure or shutting down emotionally. Racing hearts occur and stress hormones churn through their bodies.
The part of the brain that detects this threat - the amygdala, makes no difference between the past and the present, so when experiencing a flash back the physical reactions of stress hormones and nervous system response are activated as though the experience is being relived. It goes onto overdrive. This can increase fear and feelings of paranoia.
Another part of the brain - the thalamus, blanks out during trauma and flashbacks, therefore the trauma is remembered as isolated sensory imprints, images, sounds and physical sensations accompanied by intense emotions, usually terror and helplessness.
People with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are often in constant sensory overload. They will try to shut themselves down, develop tunnel vision and hyperfocus and if they cannot do this they may use drugs or alcohol to block out the world. This can cause people to shut down emotionally and to go into a state where they are blanking out or feeling nothing.
Closing oneself down filters out joy and pleasure too.
Some people have difficulty in feeling fully alive in their day to day life and they may feel drawn to places where they did feel fully alive even if it is the place of the trauma. Avoidance of situations and escape is a common way to find relief from the stress of trying to be with other people in a ‘normal’ way.
Social interaction, affection between people and being able to relate to others - family, friends and work colleagues is often extremely difficult. In trying to manage these feelings and from attempting to close off terrifying sensations, a loss of sense of purpose and the feeling of ‘being alive’ may be forfeited.
The National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE guidelines), recommends eye movement desensitisation reprocessing therapy and trauma focussed cognitive behavioural therapy to treat these conditions. Once treated successfully, although the events will remain in the memory the emotional feelings will have been completely neutralised or very substantially reduced allowing improved quality of life.
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About Angie Collinge
I have been working in mental health for 23 years and as time has gone on I have specialised more in trying to get to the route causes of problems. This still means setting measurable goals and undertaking outcome measures at every session so that progress can be measured and we can ascertain if action is being taken towards desired goals.