Survivors of abuse can be prone to extreme ‘flight or fight’ responses
Our brains are mysterious and complex organs, made up of billions of neurons. They control virtually everything we do, from breathing to blinking. And, our brains are ever changing. Each new memory or thought creates a new connection in the brain, in essence, rewiring it.
For individuals who continually experience traumatic events, or who relive traumatic memories from their childhood as adults, this means the brain can rewire itself in such a way that sometimes causes us to feel overly stressed, even when there’s nothing overt to stress about. Psychological Associate Kimberley Shilson told New York University’s The Trauma and Mental Health Report that, when trauma occurs repeatedly, cortisol—the hormone released during times of stress—can exist in abundance in the brain. This hormone can activate a part of the brain called the amygdala, the area responsible for emotions, emotional behavior and motivation, and cause even more cortisol to be released.
“The amygdala of traumatized individuals is often overly sensitive, resulting in extreme alertness. These individuals may appear aggressive, as they might be overly sensitive to perceived threats (words or gestures from peers), or withdrawn due to fear of being close to others,” says Shilson. “It is a self-perpetuating cycle that leaves the individual with heightened sympathetic arousal (‘fight or flight’ response).”
Licensed Psychologist and Childhood Domestic Violence Victim Advocate, Linda Olson Psy.D, agrees with this assessment. She works with childhood domestic violence (CDV) survivors and adult survivors of domestic violence and says that the cumulative effects of trauma can put survivors in a constant state of hyper-arousal (overreaction) or hypo-arousal (when we withdraw or shut-down).
The increased cortisol alerts the brain to threats that may not even be there because, says Olson “you’re always believing and therefore reacting as if they are.”