Sometimes people struggle with excessive or restrictive eating and body image concerns due to traumatic activation in the body. Overeating or starving oneself becomes a way to try to manage distress. But there’s a way to work more directly with traumatic activation, and it’s called resourcing. Resourcing is the ability to use internal and external resources to constructively achieve a relaxed but alert state of being. Before discussing resourcing, let’s take a look at how the nervous system works under relaxed, stressed, and traumatic states, so that you’ll understand why and how resourcing works.
Our Nervous System: The Three States
Our nervous systems are designed to be in a relaxed but alert state most of the time. When animals aren’t under attack, they’re usually eating, resting, playing, or having sex. Human nervous systems are no different, but we have bigger brains and socially constructed realities that make things a bit more complex.
When we get stressed, our first line of defense is what’s called our social engagement system. As babies, we cry when something is wrong and our caregivers make soothing voices, tones and gestures that help us relax again. As adults, the gestures and content of conversation may differ, but the same mechanism is at work. When something is distressing, we seek others to help us soothe. However, when others are also the source of distress, it can disable the option of our social engagement system.
If our social engagement system is not available to us, we engage our fight or flight response. Our amygdala hijacks our brain and biases our mobile defenses. Our pupils dilate so we can see movement better and our ears perk to heighten our sense of sound. The blood rushes into our limbs and jaw, and cortisol is released so our bodies are stronger at fighting or fleeing. If we successfully fight or flee a threat, it takes around 20 minutes to an hour for our livers to process the hormones. We might feel an adrenalin rush, but we naturally come down off that rush. We will even feel more resilient and confident for having survived, expanding our threshold for stress.
The moment that our nervous system decides, consciously or unconsciously, that this threat is too big and pervasive to either fight or flee, we move into immobile defenses — this is where traumatic activation occurs. All the sympathetic nervous system arousal is still there telling us to fight or flee, but now there’s an inhibitory response that keeps us immobile in hopes that the threat won’t detect us. It’s designed to keep us ready for our escape moment. This is known as a freeze response. Anyone who’s seen a deer in headlights has seen this response.
However, our bodies are not designed to withstand that much activation for long periods of time, so if the threat doesn’t leave, eventually our nervous system deactivates the sympathetic nervous system arousal and we go limp. The blood rushes back in from our limbs to core organs. This is our body’s way of conserving the most important aspects of our body (brain, lungs, heart) for survival because it doesn’t know how long we’ll go without resources. We can survive if an animal takes our arm, but not if it takes our heart. If you’ve seen a possum play dead, you’ve seen this system at work. Some people refer to this as a faint response.
Animals in the wild, once they realize they’re safe, will start to shake and twitch. What they’re doing is expressing the fight or flight responses that wanted to happen but were truncated during the freeze and faint responses. When they do this, they are digesting the traumatic activation. Most wild animals do not get traumatized. But humans don’t like to look silly doing uncontrollable movements. We store trauma in our bodies, waiting until we have the resources to process it, while our big neocortices move on and get involved in other things.
Resourcing: The Why’s and How’s
When trauma gets stuck in our nervous systems, even though the event is over, every time something reminds us of that traumatic event (consciously or unconsciously) those limbic and reptile memories get activated. The limbic, or emotion brain, and the reptile, or body brain, only remember in present moment. They don’t understand past or future like the neocortex does. It’s as though our bodies are reliving the experience, even though our cognitive brains are in the present reality.
For example, let’s say Johnny has a peanut allergy and almost died when he was three years old from ingesting a peanut before anyone knew he was allergic. Pretty traumatic, right? He survived though. Now, Johnny is 24 and he’s at a baseball game with his friends. Someone down in front of him gets a bag of peanuts. He can’t smell them, there’s no airborne allergen near him, but his amygdala has tripped the alarm. He may now be experiencing some throat closure and difficulty swallowing. So even though Johnny’s cognitive brain is focused on the game and his friends, his limbic and reptile brains are re-experiencing what happened when he was three! He could go to a trauma specialist and digest the activation from that threat through his body, but that’s not very accessible at the game.
The other thing he can do is resource. Resourcing takes advantage of the fact that those limbic and reptile brains only work in present moment activation, and uses it to our advantage. Johnny may need to remove himself from the threat by exercising his flight response to move far enough from the peanuts that he actually can feel safe. Maybe he goes to an upper deck of the baseball stadium for a bit. Maybe he loosens anything around his neck. Maybe he just uses self-talk to remind himself that the peanuts are too far away to be a threat.
Once he perceives he’s relatively safe, he can sit on a chair and feel through his five senses. He can notice the baseline of his breathing, his heartbeat, and tension in his chest and throat. Then he can recall a memory of a time he felt really good. He fills out the details in his mind, using as many senses as possible. He uses present tense words to bring all his memory systems into alignment.
For example, as he remembers, he’s using present moment statements like “I’m in the living room with my brother. We’re laughing. I hear Mom calling us for cookies. I can feel the sun beating down on my right arm and the air passing over my skin as I run into the kitchen.” He frames only the essence of the feel-good moment, filtering out any parts of the memory that are associated with a negative experience. Now he drops the cognitive details of the memory, and observes the changes in his body as his shoulders drop, his throat loosens, and his heartbeat slows down. That’s called internal resourcing because it’s relying on only internal means. External resourcing would be engaging in relationships or activities that have the same effect, such as mindful walking, yoga, knitting, snuggling, hugging, talking with a friend, etc.
For resourcing to work, the activity selected must be constructive rather than destructive. If we engage in activity that is self-harmful, then we’re actually mimicking a traumatic event and forcing our nervous systems to go from a panic/freeze response to a dissociative/faint response. Yes, dissociation and the opiates that are released into our brains feel better than a panic response in which we feel everything intensified and life-threatened. However, when we use self-destructive habits, we’re investing in the cycle of panic and dissociation and stay in that box. We don’t get to choose which emotions to turn off; we turn off everything, including joy and pleasure, for a moment of relief.
When we resource through tolerating panic long enough to engage in constructive resourcing, we build our resilience and need frustration. We help our bodies digest bits of the traumatic activation so that we have more bandwidth to handle life. We work smarter, rather than harder. We give ourselves more opportunity to thrive, rather than merely survive. We most likely can’t heal the core of trauma by ourselves. We need the resource of a trained professional. But, learning to resource as described above can help us not make things worse until we get there. And it can make life a whole lot better.
When we practice resourcing several times per day when we are not activated, we store the memory of that knowledge in our body brains, which is accessible under stress. That way, when we are activated and our cognitive brains are inaccessible, we will still have access to our ability to resource. Take five minutes to resource during your everyday habits, such as brushing teeth, or eating a meal. You’ll then have a powerful tool to combat the throws of traumatic activation.
The Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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