I watched Rocky today for the first time in a while. It’s a classic battle of wills and brute strength between two men who have everything to lose; ego, status and acclaim. With each blow, Rocky and Apollo hammered it out round after round. As I watched the intense blows, I was reminded that this is what life is like for survivors of trauma. The ring is life in a traumatic, abusive environment, the opponent is the abuser and you are Rocky, fighting your way through survival.
Society acknowledges the severity of physical abuse and often minimizes the impact of psychological and emotional abuse. Psychological and emotional abuse have the exact same effect and is a form of domestic violence.
Each time you were demeaned, criticized, or hammered with insults, you took a blow to your brain. Each time a promise went intentionally unfulfilled, your mind became more scrambled and new neural pathways were formed that enforced the story that you can't rely on anyone but yourself. Each time you were humiliated and mocked in public or private, you took hits and it changed your brain tissue. Trauma didn't show an outward bruise, but you still see the damage. The damage is in what you think about yourself, how you see your authority to make choices and how you are able to handle the tasks of everyday life. In short, you are like Rocky at the end of the fight; battered, swollen, inflamed, and your brain has taken a savage beating.
As a trauma recovery coach and trauma survivor, I've learned that an environment steeped in fear and abuse creates a stress response in your body. In this state called the "fight or flight" response, the brain releases chemicals to prepare to fight to the death or run for your life. If you live in that persistent state, over time, your brain begins to change. Parts of the brain like your amygdala, which releases the "fight or flight" chemicals, gets larger due to continual use and other parts of the brain like the hippocampus, responsible for memory and spatial navigation, shrinks. Any kind of prolonged period of abuse whether physical, mental, sexual or psychological cause many parts of the brain to change. Data and information stop moving through the brain in a normal way because the brain structure is no longer wired properly. Like a football player who gets hard tackled over and over again or a fighter that gets pummeled in the head, you suffer brain trauma and injury.
Ever wonder why you can't remember things you just looked at, lose your keys constantly, forget to pick something up or lose your way home when you've driven it a million times? If you have experienced prolonged periods of trauma, chances are your brain has sustained damage and you are operating at a different level of processing than you once did. Take a look at the scene from Rocky and there is no wonder a trauma survivor has signs that something has happened to them.
In my experience, any kind of threat during the years I was being abused caused a strong reaction in my body and I could feel the hormones flooding my brain when I was in danger or fear of the abuser. It felt like my head was being doused in fire and I could feel the inflammation tangibly. It would take days and sometimes weeks for the chemicals to stop releasing and I couldn't stop it. I can now see that this was a result of prolonged periods of trauma and as long as I remained in that environment, the brain injury would continue.
Here is the good news for me and for you. Our brains are neuroplastic. They can change. They can heal. True, continuing to remain in the ring of the traumatic environment will lead to more impairment, but you can make choices to help your body and your brain begin the process of healing.
Trauma recovery coaches help you make it through the fight. With the right environment and right support, you can leave the ring like Rocky, holding your belt and win your life back.
The process is going to take training, the right diet of thoughts and beliefs and examining what has really happened in your life and how it has affected you, but it is possible for you to win this thing.
You can overcome the trauma. You can write a new story and you can stand in victory.