What happens in your body when you are faced with a threat? And, more importantly, what happens afterwards? The Trauma Map, first developed by Peter Levine and modified by Eric Wolterstorff at Trauma Dynamics, can help explain the process.
In this model, there are five stages of experience, 0-4. These stages represent the reactions of a threat response system, the autonomic nervous system (ANS), headquartered in the most primitive part of the brain of all mammals. When we perceive a threat in the environment, the ANS kicks in automatically and without any decision-making on our part.
Understanding the Model
When the ANS is activated, it instantaneously goes into action to protect us from a perceived threat by releasing neurochemicals that trigger life-saving reactions. To illustrate what happens, let’s use the analogy of a gazelle and a lion on the African savanna. Here’s what occurs at each stage of the model:
Neutral. In this stage, the gazelle is peacefully browsing with other herd members.
Body/mind experience: Calm, relaxed muscles, regular breathing and heart rate, clear thinking.
- Orienting – A change in the environment catches the gazelle’s attention – a stimulus such as a sound, a smell, a sight – and the gazelle reacts by turning towards the stimulus to evaluate whether or not it’s a threat. Here, let’s imagine the stimulus is the yellow of the lion in the grass. The lion is far enough away not to pose an immediate threat, but the gazelle needs to keep an eye on it, so it maintains this level of awareness.
Body/mind experience: Activation of sympathetic nervous system. Hot symptoms – hyper-alertness, muscle tension, increased respiration and heart rate, mental focus on stimulus.
- Fight or Flight – Suddenly the lion is racing towards the gazelle. In a split second, the gazelle’s threat response system has decided whether to fight or flee and has reacted. Obviously, the gazelle will flee from a lion, but other circumstances (a competing gazelle, for example) may provoke the fight response.
Body/mind experience: Full sympathetic nervous system response. Hot symptoms – panic, fully activated muscles, hyperventilation, rapid heart rate, sensation of heat, nonessential functions shut down (higher level thinking, digestion, auto-immune system) and focus is singularly on survival.
- Freeze – The lion catches the gazelle and has it pinned to the ground. However, there is still a small chance that the situation could change: the lion could get distracted long enough for the gazelle to escape. So, although it looks frozen, inside it is ready to run if given the chance.
Body/mind experience: Sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system response. Hot and cold symptoms – panic inside and calm outside: same symptoms as (3) simultaneously or alternating with muscle collapse, heaviness, sensation of cold, nausea, slow thoughts, hopelessness.
- Dissociation – The lion drags the gazelle back to her den, where three other lions are waiting. The gazelle now has no hope of surviving.
Body/mind experience: Parasympathetic nervous system response. Cold symptoms – calm, limp muscles, breathing and heart rate slow as body systems begin to shut down, time distortion, foggy thinking, “out of body” experience.
Animals in the wild cycle through states 1-3 without any lasting impact because after the threat passes, their autonomic nervous systems “shake off” the effects and they continue with their lives. You can see animals “pronking” (jumping) and/or shaking after they’ve escaped from near death. This serves to reset the nervous system, stopping the flood of neurochemicals that cause the hot and cold symptoms described above.
Why Humans are Different
In modern society, most of us recover from our response to threats, too. But sometimes we may not be able to recover. For instance, if we are repeatedly abused as a child or if we don’t have a strong support network to help us regain “normalcy.” In these situations, the threat response system doesn’t shut off. Let’s consider human examples to get a better sense of what might result.
- You live in a major metropolitan area and constantly must be aware of your surroundings, so you are always on alert (state 1).
- As a child, you were attacked by a vicious dog. Afterwards, instead of being comforted, you were blamed for teasing the dog. As an adult, if even a small dog barks, you involuntarily jump. If a dog approaches, you experience hot symptoms (state 2).
- You nearly lost your life in an accident when a tractor-trailer hit your car head-on. Now you feel highly anxious when driving and sometimes find yourself places without remembering how you got there (hot and cold symptoms, state 3).
- You were the sole member of your family who survived a tornado. You feel numb and disconnected from life and others most of the time (cold symptoms, state 4).
In each of these cases, the trauma isn’t resolved and symptoms continue in response to triggers of the original trauma: many potential threats (1), dogs (2), and driving (3). After ongoing trauma (combat, childhood abuse, domestic violence) or trauma after which there is no support, symptoms may become so generalized that survivors experience them most of the time (4).
Other Issues with Trauma Symptoms
Sometimes people who are experiencing symptoms of past trauma are misdiagnosed because the symptoms look like other issues: major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, and so on. In such cases when only the symptoms are treated, people feel better for a while, but sooner or later (and generally under stress), the symptoms return. Over time, the triggers also may become more generalized, causing more frequent symptoms. To adapt, people often find their lives becoming smaller and smaller as they try to avoid upsetting situations.
The good news: effective treatments are available that address the cause of the symptoms. These treatments enable past trauma to be released from the body and integrated into the memory system, greatly reducing or eliminating the power of triggers. For more information about treatment, read more about EMDR, the Comprehensive Resource Model, and Trauma Dynamics.
Alexandria Hayes is a therapist with The Labyrinth Institute specializing in the treatment of trauma. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 720-588-3639.