The stress response is a survival response. It is an innate biological response to threat or perceived threat. It prepares the body to fight or flee. If we can’t fight or flee, we freeze and shut down. When a child is in danger and feels trapped, these ‘survival’ responses are activated. They are not conscious responses; they are often triggered without the child knowing. They stop the child or adult from being overwhelmed.
Under stress we can all lose our ability to stay calm, reflect and respond flexibly. Adults who were traumatised as a child are often sensitive to stress. That’s because their fight-flight-freeze response was repeatedly reactivated. It has stayed switched on. Many survivors live on high alert. They can be triggered by what seem like trivial stressors in everyday life.
These triggers remind the person’s system of their prior trauma. They throw the person back into a fear-based stress response, just like during the original trauma. Many people re-experience aspects of the original trauma, as if it is occurring in the present. When the triggers aren’t obvious to the person, or others, the triggered person can seem to overreact for no apparent reason.
What happens when a person is triggered or overwhelmed?
When a person is overwhelmed they can become hyper-aroused. This means that their nervous system is over-activated. They can be agitated, shaking, sweating. They might raise their voice, and become angry or argumentative. They can also become hypo-aroused. This is emotional numbing or “shut down” Their eyes can be glazed. They might zone out, and become quiet.
Both are trauma responses. Adult and child survivors can move between being hyper-aroused and hypo-aroused. They can also experience strong emotions at the same time. Often they stay hypervigilant, checking for possible threats.
Children are often unable to fight or flee. This makes them more likely freeze or dissociate. The younger the child the more likely they will dissociate in response to trauma. The process of dissociation enables them to divide their experience. This is a protective ‘survival’ response to being overwhelmed. The child can then separate aspects of the experience from their awareness.
If you experienced childhood trauma or child abuse please visit this page, for self-soothing and grounding strategies which can help if you are overwhelmed.
How can you support someone who have been triggered or overwhelmed?
- Recognise that being hyper- or hypo-aroused is a fear/distress response
- Focus on the person and be there with them
- Try and identify that a person is becoming overwhelmed early. Notice if they go quiet, or become easily angry, agitated or argumentative
- Validate and check in around their feelings e.g.
“I can hear from what you are saying that calling us hasn’t been easy,”
“It sounds like what I have told you has made you angry”
- Give the person as much control and choice in your interaction as possible
- Be flexible in your approach. Focus on what the person needs
- Work on your own response. Find ways to settle your nervous system if you are impacted. Stabilise you own responses. It may help you to sit with your feet on the ground. Feel your feet connect to the floor. Take some calming deep breaths. Close your eyes and focus on the other sounds around you. Take a sip of water, etc. All until you can settle your own response.
If you are a family member, friend, colleague, or practitioner supporting someone who is triggered or becomes overwhelmed please see here