Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and trauma responses, are often thought of as being dramatic and invasive. We most often think of people having intense intrusions, flash-backs, anger and panic, of responses clinicians describe as hyper-arousal. Hyper-arousal occurs when a person's body suddenly kicks into high alert as a result of thinking about their trauma. Even though real danger may not be present here and now, their body acts as if it is, causing lasting stress after the traumatic event or events, continually activating our fight - flight mechanism.
However, this is only a part of the story. Oftentimes, people who have been traumatized do not have these experiences, rather, they may have emptiness or absence rather than anything intense. We call this hypo-arousal. Hypo-arousal is also known as the 'freeze' response. Here a person may become disconnected from the present and withdraw or dissociate – sometimes having no memory of what's happening. They may feel separate from their thoughts and feelings, and those around them may experience them as being shut down – as though always 'off'. People with hypo-arousal may not remember things, for example having periods of life with little memory at all.
So, trauma can create charged places, and it can also create empty places. Sometimes there is a combination of both. What is needed to support healing is playful, accepting, empathic and curious presence from the psychotherapist assisting the client in their processing. In essence, the therapist is providing the attuned experiences that were not present at the time of the trauma, and create the safety needed for integration of the split-off trauma responses to occur.
Laurel Parnell suggests Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR), a trauma therapy, helps develop a felt sense of the truth. It’s one way of the client learning what fits for them, here and now, as they recall what happened there and then.
Together, client and therapist can co-create a big enough space to hold what was not containable at the time the trauma occurred. This is dynamic, lively work, asking of both their presence and commitment to be fully in the room. This trust and safety takes a little time to build, but once in place, its effects can be humbling.
If you are experiencing hypo-arousal or hyper-arousal, there are treatments available that may help. Reach out to your medical professional, or an accredited psychotherapist to learn more.