There are 4 physiological components of trauma which are always present to some degree in a person who has suffered a traumatic event or a series of events that all add up to trauma. I have also noticed that when a person is stressed and experiences an event that others might not see as traumatic it is that way for the person whose ability to take more stress of any sort is diminished. These 4 states are hyper-arousal, constriction, dissociation and freezing (tonic immobility).

Hyper-arousal: is characterised by increased heart rate and breathing (often shallow with intermittent deep breaths), difficulty in sleeping because the pineal gland is reacting to higher adrenaline levels to maintain alertness, jitteriness, racing thoughts and/or anxiety or panic attacks. The threat can be internal, external, real or imagined. The sympathetic nervous system is turned up and won’t turn down.

Constriction: Hyper-arousal is accompanied by constriction of the body and narrowing of our perceptions and focus. We rally all our body parts and mind to focus on the threat. Constantly yelling at a child to sit still and behave will lead eventually to constriction in movement and speech and withdrawal into self. Constriction alters a person’s muscle tone, breathing (often shallow) and posture (often stooped). Blood vessels in the skin constrict as they do in the visceral regions to push more blood to the muscles. A tight and tense person is experiencing constriction and their focus will not be broad but confined to the threat. They will be hyper-sensitive to comments that evoke the experience of the trauma (i.e. hyper-critical parent/boss/partner, abusive parent, physical violence etc.) When this level of protection is not sufficient to contain hyper-arousal or the body becomes exhausted from the process the body uses freezing or dissociation.

Disassociation: The most common and recognisable but yet most subtle symptom of trauma which enable people to endure experiences which are or have been beyond immediate endurance. Rape, physical violence, car accidents, surgery, constant abuse by a family member, constant and unrelenting work stress are examples of when this is most likely to occur. Individuals that have been repeatedly traumatized as young children often adopt dissociation as a preferred mode of being in the world. They can be spacy and lack focus. Not hear everything or anything you say to them. They zone out into another world in order to cope. They find remembering things more difficult and seem to have short term memory issues. There can be a dissociation between parts of the body (i.e. mind and body can be separate, a separation between self and emotions, thoughts and sensations, between self and memory of part or all of a traumatic event). Physical ailments can include headaches, back pain, calf and hamstring tightness, PMS, hormonal and gastrointestinal and immune system problems. “I can’t protect myself therefore I am leaving some part of me to survive”.

Freezing/Tonic Immobility: This is a state where no pain is experienced and is a last resort survival position. The word associated with this state is “numb”. The person accumulates a frozen store of energy that related to the trauma and this can be released much later in response to another stressor. This store of energy can persist in the body as anxiety, depression, somatic dysfunction, and psychosomatic and behavioural problems. These symptoms will persist until the store energy of the trauma is released. The trauma if physical in nature will be held within the body so not only the mind but the body must experience release.