So this is a big deal- a therapist telling their own story in a public arena. I am 100% human and therefore I am also not immune to some of the struggles that my clients courageously come to talk to me about. I thought I would share my story to hopefully illustrate how traumatic events can effect our brain and body after an event and how I am managing my symptoms. Events impact us all differently because we are all unique, some pass us by with no effects and others can totally immobilise us. Psychological trauma is subjective and can be caused by a multitude of events such as : Abuse, Accidents, brain tumour and brain injury, catastrophic events, physical injury, terminal illness/bereavement and violence. The common factor that events have that lead to trauma are ones that are not anticipated or outside the arena of what we believe to be acceptable-physically, emotionally or socially.
‘Trauma is primarily remembered not as a story, a narrative with a beginning, middle and end, but as isolated sensory imprints:images, sounds and physical sensations that are accompanied by intense emotions, usually terror and helplessness’
Bassel van der Kolk
The event- an accident
Over a year ago I headed confidently into the sea with my friends and our surfboards ready and excited to ride some pretty big waves. Little did I know that on that day I would lose my confidence in my ability to keep myself safe and my excitement for the waves. The conditions were pretty big that day and I was unfamiliar with the dangers of that particular beach. My gung-hoe approach to waves had meant that I would be willing to try to ride most big waves and on reflection there was no healthy fear of the sea, the sea was my friend and my playground.
That day after spending some time in the water I had decided that I felt tired and would take the next wave into the beach, with that I took a huge wave and hurtled towards what I thought was the shore. However, little did i realise that I had actually lined myself up with the mouth of the river estuary which was flowing at a rapid rate out towards the sea. So there I became caught, me and my little board, too tired to paddle back out to sea, too tired to paddle right or left and certainly not able to battle the strong river current. I was stuffed! Physically exhausted I began to panic and tried to swim which was hopeless, the waves kept crashing on my head and I felt utterly helpless and very scared. This is the closest I have felt to thinking I might drown.
But, you guessed it, I did get out of the washing machine of waves! I remembered after my initial panic that when trapped in a current you just need to stay put and let the current take you where it does . The sea did take me to shore eventually, not the side of the river that i needed to be but I was safe. I then had the next task of getting to the other side of the river where my friends were. Shaking and in tears, mostly of relief, I had to walk all the way up river to a place that I could throw myself and my board into the river to paddle to the other side, i was scared of the water again and worried that my friends would be worried I had been gone for such a long time. I threw myself into the river and managed to paddle the board to the right side of the beach.
The after effects
So how did this affect me afterwards and what does this have to do with trauma and the reptile brain? I was shocked that when I tried to relay my story after the event I cried uncontrollably and cried many many times telling it, for me this was the closest I had ever been to drowning and I was terrified. It was a trauma, a helpless unsafe moment that I had managed to rescue myself from. The reptile part of our brains is the oldest evolved part that originally served and still does to keep us safe from danger. It reacts automatically when it senses we are in danger through our autonomic nervous system. Sometimes during traumatic events this part of the brain will store isolated sensory inputs from that trauma, such as images and sounds and physical sensations accompanied by intense emotions , usually terror and helplessness. My understanding is that my brain had stored memories from that surfing incident in the unconscious reptile part of my brain to keep me safe from harm again in the future. Its like it had logged it for Catherine’s future surfs! . Talking about what had happened through telling the story actually helped me. Eventually I could tell it and not cry and I could be proud of the fact that I had calmed myself down which had led to self rescue. I made meaning to my story and l reflected on how I could keep myself safer in the future. What I was not prepared for was the physical changes that occurred as a result of that day. Every time I headed out to that same beach or big waves my legs would shake uncontrollably with fear and once I even had a panic attack in the water. This recreated a feeling of helplessness, anger at myself and frustration. I realised that I needed to step back and re evaluate how I approached surfing and recovery from the accident.
Calming the reptile brain
Learning about why the physical sensations occur is helpful when working through psychological trauma. I know my brain is trying to keep me safe, however shaky legs and fear is not helpful because I want to surf again! I could avoid surfing forever but I know I enjoyed it before the accident. I know that I need to calm my brain down and reassure it that I am OK whilst still being alert to real danger. To do this I have employed the following methods:
- Self awareness! When I feel the shaky legs in my body, telling myself that I am OK, big doses of self compassion especially when I’m feeling like a failure because my body is not working how I want it to. Breathing! I blamed myself for the accident as it was happening and so I need to focus on self compassion because this self critical belief does not help build my confidence in my ability to keep safe. The shaky legs symptom is probably due to a build up of adrenaline in my legs triggered by my brain automatically to enable me to run away from the sea, this is obviously not wanted but I can understand why that mechanism is there. Thank you brain!
- Starting off small again- limiting the factors which give me more arousal/triggering or fear and building them up slowly again to reassure my brain and build tolerance- for me I know I am triggered by being in crowded surf spots and esp on big wave days. So I have practised in quieter areas to build my confidence/skills and body strength.
- Improving my ability to keep myself safe- planning for danger knowing that this is a sport that carries risk, being aware but not fearful. Becoming stronger in my body through increasing my physical fitness. Becoming more aware when my body feels tired to head back to shore rather than getting out exhausted.
- Reassurance from friends- Its OK to ask for help, to share how I feel and let others know I feel panicky or scared.
Yesterday I had my first solo surf and it was wonderful, it was at that same beach . I feel so happy that I am gaining back my confidence in the sea . I’m so glad my reptile brain is there to keep me safe and i’m glad that I have gone a long way to reassure it that I am OK so that my shaky legs and panic are less intense and I can feel excited again by the waves.
Trauma leaves us with memories but more often the symptoms of trauma , our response to threat are the lasting effects from the event. Managing those symptoms are part of the recovery, training our brains and bodies to live in a window of tolerance again so that we can live the lives that we want to. If you are suffering from the after effects from trauma I would encourage you to seek out an experienced therapist whom you can work with. There is some great information about psychological trauma available in the Counselling Directory . Recovery is possible!
My understanding of the reptile brain and way of working with trauma has been greatly influenced by PODS , Positive Outcomes for Dissociative Survivors and research and theory by Bassel van der Kolk, Stephen Porges, Ruth Lanius, Daniel Siegel , Pat Ogden and Suzette Boon.