Is Your Mind On Red Alert?

By Dr Nick Baylis, Co-director of the Well-Being Institute, Cambridge University. Originally printed in The Australian, Nov 2006.

Emotional trauma lodged deep within the brain’s circuitry can tether us to the past and make it difficult to re-engage and progress with our life. Though many of us suffer some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder, we may not understand its origins, effects and potential cures.

You don’t have to be a battlefront soldier to risk suffering some level of the syndrome; it can affect any one of us. Perhaps you’ve suffered a single mind-injuring event such as an accident, difficult surgery or a relationship shock. Or the suffering may have been recurrent and long-term, such as physical or emotional bullying. A child might be traumatised simply by being told of an incident that horrifies them, or by witnessing a distraught adult.

Whatever the cause, the brain’s preconscious alarm system, centred in a small organ called the amygdala, is rendered hyper-sensitive by the traumatising experience. It’s as if the trauma lodges like a piece of shrapnel in our amygdala. From that time on, anything in our environment that reminds us of the initial ordeal will cause problems. This is because the amygdala doesn’t distinguish between incoming information from our five senses and mere thoughts. So even if it’s an imagined emergency, our amygdala hits the panic button.

What triggers subsequent panic reactions may not have been the most damaging element at the time of the trauma, it’s just the feature our brain has latched on to and what has become the warning signal for panic. We might be alarmed by all people who look a certain way, or by the smell of hospitals, a bright colour, a sudden sound, an enclosed space or a sense of intimacy.

The result might be any number of psychological symptoms, ranging from anxiety to irritability, depression or emotional numbness. Perhaps we are plagued by flashbacks, obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviours. In addition, there will very likely be physical effects; excessive perspiration, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, digestive problems, skin complaints, nervous twitches, physical pain or panic attacks. All kind of phobias may develop, such as fear of public speaking, or the dark or of heights.

Directly or indirectly, our personal relationships may be affected. We might become evasive of commitment or emotional affection, or distrustful or even the most benign sexual feelings or advances. We might just as easily become enraged at any hint of bullying, racked with shame at some real or imagined shortfall, or filled with a sense of hopelessness. But at the root of all these symptoms will be the hyper-alert stand-by state caused by the traumatising incident or relationship.

In the face of such symptoms, we might try to self-medicate with alcohol or some other distracting or tranquillising behaviour, but unless the connection is identified we are only dulling the symptoms and not treating the cause. What’s more, our brains and bodies being on red alert like this is tiring and debilitating, and we can’t tun our emotional energy to other things. That’s how post-traumatic stress syndrome does much of its damage; it hijacks our resources into defending us against a non-existent aggressor.

So, if you are suffering in the ways described, then a specialist approach is needed. Your doctor will be able to refer you to a psychologist qualified to help “neutralise” the shrapnel so your mind can move on.

Copyright Dr Nick Baylis. Co-director of the Well-Being Institute, Cambridge University. Reprinted with permission.