Loss of self-awareness due to PTSD

Loss of self-awareness due to PTSD

Psychological trauma has emotional as well as physical consequences on the people who suffer from it. But why do they lose their awareness of themselves? Find out here.

Loss of self-awareness due to PTSD

Last update: April 10, 2023

Trauma has the potential to hijack the brain. In fact, in the following the horror of the situations experienced by the traumatized, their body ceases to belong to them. Indeed, they experience a loss of body consciousness. Therefore, their bodies activate at the slightest sign of danger. This prevents them from “being themselves” when their physical symptoms take over.

Many areas of the brain participate in this “body diversion”. However, the most important is probably the amygdala. This structure is common to all mammals. It is the region that allows us to feel and above all to survive.

“Trauma makes us feel disconnected from our bodies, others, and the world, and healing involves reconnecting those parts.”

-Bessel Van der Kolk-

The removal of the body

When an individual perceives a danger that could threaten their survival, it only takes a few seconds for their brain to adopt the fight, flight or block reaction. In fact, they lack the ability to assess and interpret whether the situation is truly dangerous or harmless.

This occurs in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Due to the pain, anger, helplessness and terror felt by the individual, the stimuli that occurred during the duration of the traumatic event are associated with the emotion of fear.

This explains how survivors of traumatic events are terrified by many different stimuli that do not tend to induce fear in the general population. For example, Mark, a survivor of the war from Iran, panics every time he hears the blades of a fan, because they remind him of the movement of the blades of his combat helicopter in which all his companions died.

This means that the most insignificant and innocuous stimulus may be able to capture and “kidnap” an individual. They experience symptoms such as tachycardia and panic attacks. They also feel fear, anguish and anxiety. Indeed, he becomes a cocktail that ends up paralyzing them. The area responsible for this diversion is the amygdala.

“The body is the basis of SeWhether and has experience, and anything that ignores the experience of the body has terrible therapeutic consequences.

-Bessel Van der Kolk-

Anxiety and fear are the consequences of psychological trauma. They lead to a loss of body consciousness.

Self-awareness: key to recovery from PTSD

While the amygdala is responsible for capturing the individual and dragging them into a chaotic and dark emotional realm, the medial prefrontal cortex provides reason. In fact, it is the seat of self-awareness (Van der Kolk, 2020).

Being aware of yourself means knowing what is going on in your body. It is a feeling of interoception. Van der Kolk is one of the world’s most famous psychological trauma psychiatrists. He says that in the treatment of PTSD, two questions should be asked:

  • What do you feel ?
  • What happens next?

Trauma sufferers go through their lives with burning emotions. In addition, they often experience frustration, anger, terror or anguish in a bodily way. They frequently experience these feelings in their chest and stomach.

“The self-awareness of the body puts us in touch with our inner world; the landscape of our organism.

-Bessel Van der Kolk-

Loss of self-awareness and fear of emotions

Avoiding contact with these feelings is counterproductive because it increases them. However, with the two questions suggested by Van der Kolk, the individual connects to their emotions. Therefore, it promotes, instead of reducing self-awareness.

PTSD is considered a “hostile adversary and rival”. That said, it’s not the aggressor per se. The bodily sensations and emotions that the individual experiences. Van der Kolk says: “The fear of being held hostage by unpleasant sensations causes the body to freeze and the mind to shut down.” For this reason, it is essential for the person affected to change the way they relate to themselves and their body.

Anyone undergoing therapy should be aware that their emotions and bodily sensations have a definite beginning, but also an end. Actually, this perception of “impermanence” can be a useful strategy for tolerating the negative impact of anxiety and terror.

Naming emotions is key to learning how to process them.

Naming the emotions

The next step is to label, name and assign a description to the feelings of the individual. As such, the patient must make narrative sense of their emotions. This activates their medial prefrontal cortex, as opposed to hyperactivating the amygdala. It uses reason to balance emotion.

After a traumatic event, there can be a multitude of stimuli that remain associated with the message of “danger”. In the months to come, these stimuli have the potential to trigger waves of emotions that paralyze the traumatized. This happens because the amygdala is the emotional center of the brain that “takes us away” so we can survive.

However, the stimuli that were associated with trauma back then are harmless today. Yet they continue to “kidnap” the victim. For this reason, the victim must increase his self-awareness. The goal is to promote less aversive and more friendly reactions to stimuli.

“Focus on that feeling and see how it changes when you take a deep breath, or when you hit your chest just below the collarbone, or when you allow yourself to cry.”

-Bessel Van der Kolk-

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