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Trauma: Emotional hijacking

I heard a good analogy while I was attending a lecture recently. It pertains to why we sometimes find ourselves emotionally hijacked, even when our responses don’t necessarily lead to the best outcomes.

Before I get too far, let me back up for a minute. At the lecture, the speaker talked about how we can “head over the waterfalls,” behaving in historically patterned ways, without any volitional thought whatsoever.

Heading over the water falls is a good thing when it involves something like learning to walk or operating a car. Initially, the motor behaviours involved in walking or driving require a lot of concentration to execute. Small children are clumsy when they begin to walk. Everything is a challenge. Lifting their feet. Taking the next step. But fairly quickly we master walking and even sprinting without any conscious effort.

Same thing goes for driving. Remember when you had to look for where to put the key before you could start the ignition? How you had to think to shift the car into drive? How you had to concentrate to change lanes on the highway? But now, you sometimes arrive home from work without remembering which road you took, or any of the decisions you made along the way.

Both of these activities – learning to walk and learning to drive – develop similar to the way that water erodes a path through rock. With the first rain drop falls, water follows gravity, taking the path of least resistance. Then gravity acts on that rain drop and plunges it over a precipice.

Given enough rain and enough time, a groove becomes worn in the rock. The groove becomes deeper and deeper until a water fall develops. Then, there is no question about where the rain will travel when it lands on the ground. It finds the groove and travels over the waterfall.

So it goes with our brains. Activities that once took tremendous conscious effort become automatic as well-worn paths get created in our brains. Neurons are the cells in our brains. Neuronal pathways (meaning pathways made of neurons) get laid down in our brains much the same way that the flow of water creates a waterfall over time. With repetition, neuronal pathways become more and more deeply etched, and we follow those grooves without conscious thought.

What’s interesting about a waterfall is that it’s difficult to resist and “go against the flow, when you find yourself pulled along by the current. There isn’t time to act when you find yourself in the water because the current is so strong and you’re swept along so quickly. Just over you go.

And so it goes with the brain. Well etched grooves in the brain – or well-developed neuronal pathway – get followed in much the same manner. Once we find ourselves in the groove, we get swept along and “over we go” as well.

Like when? Something happens today and you respond the way you did years ago. Here’s an example that I heard about recently. It’s a tough example to read but it illustrates the point quite well.

(All identifying information has been changed in the story that follows to protect privacy.)

Let’s say Amanda was sexually abused as a child by her grandfather for several years. To survive, her body would shut-down. She would go into a state of hypoarousal called “feigned death.” Knowing she couldn’t fight or run, her brain would protect her from the emotional and physical pain of the abuse by shutting down. This defense mechanism allowed her to survive, so it was a good defense to have when she was small.

Now let’s say Amanda is a grown woman. She has little or no conscious memory of the years of sexual abuse she experienced, but her body remembers.

Now let’s say a man Amanda barely knows touches her in an unwanted way. Maybe he runs his hands through her hair. Like a drop of rain falling on the rock, her reaction follows the neuronal pathway that is a well-worn groove in her brain. She immediately goes into feigned death. She is in hypoarousal and shuts down.

It makes sense, when you know about neuronal pathways and Amanda’s incest history, that she didn’t fight, doesn’t it? Amanda couldn’t say no. She couldn’t tell the man his advances were unwanted. She couldn’t fight. All she could do was head over the waterfalls.

So far this all sounds rather bleak. If our brains create neuronal pathways that plunge us over the edge of a cliff, so to speak, how can a survivor of incest learn to defend herself as an adult?

First, she needs to know about the well-worn groove in her brain. She needs to know that a drop of rain in the vicinity of the waterfalls can cause her to go into hypoarousal, so she will not hold herself responsible for how she responds when she is the recipient of unwanted touch.

Next, and quite importantly, she needs to know that she can develop new neuronal pathways in her brain that she can activate to counter the well-worn pathways she utilized as a child to survive. With practice, she can learn to respond to new ways that lead to outcomes that better serve her as an adult.

Like what? Maybe Amanda will choose to learn a martial art so that she can develop neuronal pathways that will enable her to defend herself when she is threatened by unwanted touch.

The moral of this blog post? There are several. The first, I hope, is that you will be more patient and gentle with yourself when you find yourself “going over the waterfall” so to speak.

The second, which is equally important, is that you will realize you can develop new neuronal pathways as an alternative to the well-worn pathways you used as a child that no longer serve you well.

Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta

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