Overcoming a Traumatic Experience

It's All in Our Minds
During a frightening experience, your brain sends signals to your body to fight, flee or freeze.
During a frightening experience, your brain sends signals to your body to fight, flee or freeze.
George Doyle/Valueline/Thinkstock

Feelings and reactions to trauma start in one place: the brain. We've all heard of fight or flight -- our bodies' physiological response that prepares us to "fight" or "flee" from a threat to our survival. Well, there's also a third "f": freeze.

During the traumatic episode, our brain can also send out biochemical signals for our bodies to become temporarily immobilized. Our brain is the one in control, not us. "People can become frozen during a traumatic situation, not because they are cowards, because their brain has instructed them to do so," says Dr. Rando. Stopping a person in her tracks is one of the many methods the brain will use to protect her during a traumatic experience.

A danger response may also unleash stress hormones that do things to your body like raising blood sugar, heart rate or adrenaline levels. After the traumatic situation is over, the body returns to normal. However, if the traumatic situation is prolonged or repeated, the brain may get "stuck" in a hyperalert state [source: Howard and Crandall].

Replaying traumatic experiences was extremely necessary during evolutionary times. After a caveman encountered a saber-tooth tiger and narrowly escaped with his life, his brain instructed him to relax because the threat was gone. It also reminded him of the experience, so he knew to stay away from tigers in the future.

In modern society, we don't need these reminders from our brains because they exist everywhere. People are forced to re-live the experiences again and again through comments made by others, media coverage and other avenues. Rando says the brain's job is to help us through the attack and develop survival skills for the future. But, she cautions, "When replaying the moment becomes your way of life, then it's outlived its usefulness."

So does that mean a person will never get over a traumatic experience? Turn to the next page to find out.