The science bit
The Nervous system
The biology of the body is incredible and simplistically it holds our nervous system which helps us to function and keeps us alive. A healthy nervous system means when it is activated, arousal can go up enabling you to run if needed, remain still or stay as you are because there is no threat. Action can then be taken to make you safe, if necessary and once you are safe the nervous system calms and moves into a period of recovery before the next experience where arousal goes up. When an individual is healthy they know the danger has ended. Using polyvagal theory we can understand something that happens out of our awareness and use it to help us by making it conscious. When the nervous system becomes compromised it can get stuck in loops either not responding to danger due to being shut down/numb or remaining in a state of arousal and hypervigilance when the danger no longer exists. The very mechanisms that help us to move, manage emotion and deal effectively with daily life events become compromised and perceived through the lens of “I am in danger” or “I am unsafe”. It may not be a thought you are having but you may be aware of the physical sensations that indicate your nervous system has been activated like your heart racing, an urge to run or lash out, a desire to shut down. These processes happen first and are quicker than your “thinking mind”. They need to so that you can survive. Your body does many things without thinking about it that keep us alive and to think about each of them would debilitate us so it is necessary for them to be automatic. Consider reflex action for a moment. If you were to think about moving when an object was moving fast towards your face you would probably be hit. However people move or defend themselves without thinking. Sometimes the nervous system needs help to restore its balance and reinstate itself.
The brain is an impressive piece of kit that continually makes assessments about risk and how to survive. It takes in information and makes sense of it however some things frontline service personnel are exposed to can be nonsensical, difficult to comprehend or traumatic and so the brain becomes overwhelmed and stuck in a survival mode. At the moment of threat the “thinking mind” can become compromised and other parts of the brain take over. In this mode options become limited and although individuals can do the best they can they end up with some compromising features like the ones at the start of this website. Sometimes individuals are diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety disorders, depression, sleep disorder or alcohol dependence. I will not formally diagnose you rather I will work with the symptoms you are experiencing as these can all be a product of challenging work conditions and our body and minds way of coping. For example we could be trying to numb or avoid reminders of the situation or managing intrusions from reliving what has already taken place which are being felt in flashbacks, dreams, our body or thoughts.
The amygdala is often called the smoke alarm of the brain, becoming active to let us know about threat. However the amygdala, through exposure to events, can become oversensitive and react when the threat is not real but perceived. It can then affect how we view our environment and our relationships. Society has changed from the world our ancestors encountered. The amygdala was helpful at assessing whether their life was in danger so they could avoid, fight or hide from wild animals and survive. Nowadays within our lives it is not so easy to assess threat to survival although within frontline services the exposure to more obvious threats is higher and the need to look after ourselves is also higher.
Neuro-imaging of traumatised individuals showed that under stress areas of the brain responsible for executive functioning (thinking about the consequences, making choices, planning, ordering, flexible thinking) become compromised inhibiting appropriate responses (Bessel Van de Kolk).
Individuals are complex as they make sense of their environment alongside what goes on within them. We have a sixth sense than can when tuned into let us know about our well being and can perceive stimuli within our environment that may not feel right. The sense within our gut that things are not OK (“I had a gut feeling something wasn’t right”). Sometimes through exposure to events these sensors can also become over sensitive or lost touch with. In frontline services these responses may be overridden to do the job, for example needing to override the urge to leave/run but go towards threat. Consider how often your role has taken you towards something that those not in your role would have gone away from. Sometimes individuals can feel shame for struggling after serious incidents or emotionally charged situations. This part of your role brings difficulties and requires specialist treatment to recover from.
In summary, when the brain and body systems of people become compromised they end up feeling too much or too little. This then becomes a problem and treatment is needed to restore people to a more natural equilibrium.