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Archive for the ‘hyperarousal’ Category

Here’s a photo of me at 13. I was called a hard girl or a hood, terms popular in working class New Jersey neighborhoods in the ’50s and ’60s. I’m mad as hell and I don’t know why. I smoke and carry a switchblade in my pocket. I glare at everyone I see in a dare and am constantly on guard. What’s the problem?

One day, my beloved, former fifth grade teacher, Mr. Rubin, stopped me in the grammar school hallway, just after I’d gotten kicked out of graduation practice, and asked me why I was making so much trouble. He told me that the principal wanted to expel me from school, making it impossible for me to graduate.

I thought hard about this question. Mr. Rubin had been my favorite teacher and I owed him an explanation because number one, he was going to talk to the principal and advocate for me to graduate and two, he cared about me and I felt his love. I leaned back against the wall and racked my brain, but nothing came. “I don’t know,” I said helplessly.

Of course I didn’t. No one even talked about Post-traumatic Stress in the ’50s much less knew about it. The closest people came was in discussing the hush-hush topic of shell shock that World War II veterans suffered. What I knew for certain was that as an adolescent, I felt vulnerable, terrified, and helpless. A gang, a switchblade, cigarettes, and a tall, strong boyfriend who protected me helped me cope. Drinking on weekends helped. I was drawn to the troubled kids. I was a troubled kid.

At this time, I was also cutting my arms with razor blades, trying to soothe myself, odd as this may sound. After slicing my boyfriend’s initials into my arm, I’d carefully wash the cuts, dab them with cotton balls, and apply ointment, feeling sorry for myself. I remember the satisfaction I felt covering the wound with a band-aid. Caring for my cut helped me have compassion for myself, a diversion from the messages of self-loathing and fear broadcasting in my brain.

When traumatized folks enter stressful developmental periods in their lives, the anxiety they already feel from PTSD is exacerbated. Since I didn’t know that I had PTS symptoms–hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response, difficulty falling asleep, recurrent nightmares, anxiety–I didn’t understand my behavior.

When children are making trouble at school, PTSD may be at the root or be a contributing factor. In any case, blaming and/or stigmatizing the child or teen-ager is not the answer. Caring is the answer. A creative response is the answer.  Understanding and patience are required. Gangs are often how kids cope with PTSD when they aren’t getting help any other way.

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An article by Dr. Bruce D. Perry et al is a must-read for all those trying to understand the impact of infant trauma on a person’s life:  “Childhood Trauma, The Neurobiology of Adaptation, and ‘Use-dependent’ Development of the Brain: How ‘States’ Become ‘Traits.'” I became interested in this article because I believe that there are aspects of my character that, rather than simply being my personality, are actually qualities shaped by early trauma. These so-called “traits” are behaviors, somatic patterns, and thought ruts that no longer serve me. In fact, while they may have saved me long ago, they disempower me now.

The article is somewhat complex, so I’ve selected some quotes to help you see what Perry et al are getting at.

“Traumatic experiences in childhood increase the risk of developing a variety of neuropsychiatric symptoms in adolescence and adulthood ” (273).

“Ultimately, it is the human brain that processes and internalizes traumatic . . . experiences. It is the brain that mediates all emotional, cognitive, behavioral, social, and physiological functioning. It is the human brain from which the human mind arises and within that mind resides our humanity. Understanding the organization, function, and development of the human brain, and brain-mediated responses to threat, provides the keys to understanding the traumatized child” (273).

“. . . traumatized children exhibit profound sensitization of the neural response patterns  associated with their traumatic experiences. The result is that full-blown response patterns (e.g., hyperarousal or dissociation) can be elicited by apparently minor stressors” (275).

In this article, Perry et al make the case that “reactivated” fear coming from an oversensitized brain stem and midbrain due to trauma can cause hyperarousal: “hyperactivity, anxiety, behavioral impulsivity, sleep problems, tachycardia [abnormally fast heart rate], hypertension, and a variety of neuroendocrine [hormonal] abnormalties” (278). These conditions and behaviors are states NOT traits.

On the other hand, oversensitized brains can be  result in “dissociation.” For example, if an outside  stimulus evokes the trauma, a person may freeze or numb him or herself. A child may “disengag[e] from stimuli in the external world and attend [. . . ] to an ‘internal’ world” (280) as in daydreaming or fantasizing. As a result, a child may falsely be understood to be extremely shy or uncooperative. Dissociation and hyperarousal are “states” created by early trauma. In adulthood, many of us have wrongly come to accept them as our personality “traits.”

Another major point from the article is that traumatized infants and children do not simply get over their traumas. According to Perry et al, “children are not resilient, children are malleable” (285). In fact, to assume infants and children were not affected by the trauma or will grow out of it is not only incorrect but destructive. Perry et al leave us with this final point: “Persistence of the destructive myth that ‘children are resilient’ will prevent millions of children, and our society, from meeting their true potential” (286).

For me, I just want my real self back.

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