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  • Writer's pictureFiona Hewkin Counselling

Understanding Fear in Trauma Survivors and How to Conquer It

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

Large Growling Tiger
Large Growling Tiger

This blog is about understanding fear in trauma survivors and how to conquer it. We are going to take a look at how fear shows up in trauma survivors, because it shows up a lot! What goes on inside our brains and the help that counselling can bring.

Fear's Many Faces

Trauma is like a scar on the soul; it leaves an indelible mark. Fear, in various shapes and sizes, is a constant companion for trauma survivors. I am often asked “why do I feel scared all the time even when I know there is no danger?” To be honest I have wondered that in my own journey recovering from trauma. I was afraid most of the time.

Fear is an important, hard-wired emotion. It is the thing that keeps us safe. Fear alerts us to threat so we can respond and keep ourselves safe. This comes in very handy when there is an actual threat and a risk to our safety.

Although the fear response is normal and key to survival it can get stuck in a loop when we have experienced trauma.

So How Does Fear in Trauma Survivors Show Up?

  1. Hyperarousal: As trauma survivors we often live in a state of hyperarousal, which means we are on high alert 24/7. Our brains are like overworked smoke detectors, ready to go off at the slightest hint of danger or burnt toast. This can result in chronic anxiety, irritability, and difficulty sleeping. It’s absolutely exhausting.

  2. Intrusive Memories: Flashbacks and nightmares can haunt survivors. The past trauma often invades our present, making it tough to differentiate between what's real and what's a terrifying memory. It feels like it is all happening right now. This is to do with how the brain processes trauma memories, more of that later.

  1. Avoidance: In an attempt to escape the fear, survivors might avoid places, people, or activities that remind us of the trauma. This can lead to isolation and further emotional distress. Avoidance rarely works as a long-term strategy, it just leaves us feeling alone and miserable.

  2. Emotional Dysregulation: Feelings all over the place. The rollercoaster of emotions can be overwhelming. Fear can manifest as anger, guilt, or even a profound sense of numbness, making it tough to connect with others.

What Happens in the Brain?

Now, let's look into the amazing world of neuroscience. When it comes to trauma and fear, it's all happening in our brains. I will keep this simple because I don't understand the com

plicated stuff!

The amygdala, a tiny but important, almond-shaped structure, is the epicentre of the fear response. It's the brain's "fight or flight" control centre. When a trauma survivor encounters a trigger, the amygdala lights up like a Christmas tree. This sets off a chain reaction in the brain, releasing stress hormones and activating the body's alarm system. Basically, our amygdala tells us that there is a sabre-toothed tiger, and we need to either fight it or run away.

On the flip side, the prefrontal cortex, the brain's CEO for rational thinking and decision-making, can take a hit during trauma. It's like the control room's power gets cut off. This makes it difficult for survivors to process, understand, and manage our fear.

Ordinary memories are processed with a date and time stamp. Think of it like a big filing cabinet. Our minds and bodies know that even if it is a nasty memory, it is in the past. Because our prefrontal cortex goes offline during really horrible stuff these memories never get a date and time on them, that’s why trauma flashbacks feel just like they are happening right now and are so frightening. The tiger is back, and he is going to eat us!

We aren’t Crazy!

Once we understand that our nervous system is trying to keep us safe, and it is a completely unconscious process we can take a deep breath. We are not crazy! It is a natural reaction to a perceived threat.

How does Counselling Help?

  • Creating a Safe Space: We all talk about counselling as a safe space, actually it’s really hard to feel safe, even in therapy if we are trauma survivors! With time, patience, and a good trauma informed therapist it is possible to start feeling safe in the therapy room. This can go a long way towards allowing us to trust again.

  • Connection and Support: One of the most beautiful aspects of counselling is the opportunity to connect with a compassionate and empathetic professional. This connection can be a lifeline for survivors, helping us rebuild our trust in others.

  • Processing and Releasing: Trauma survivors often carry heavy emotional baggage. A good therapist can help us process trauma without re-traumatising us! Counselling helps us unpack it, piece by piece, and start the healing process.

  • Coping Strategies: Counsellors equip survivors with practical tools to manage fear and anxiety. From breathing exercises to grounding techniques, these skills empower survivors to regain control.

  • Rebuilding the Brain: Through various therapeutic techniques, counselling can help us rewire our brains. This means re-establishing a balance between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, which is essential for emotional regulation.

Counselling isn't a quick fix; it's a journey, and like any journey, it has its ups and downs. There were days when I wanted to just give up and say bugger it! But it's a journey worth taking. It's a path to healing, growth, and, most importantly, the restoration of hope.

Fear might be a constant companion for trauma survivors, but it doesn't have to define our lives. With the right support, we can learn to coexist with our fears, gradually diminishing their power. We can reclaim our lives, our happiness, and our peace.

If I am honest with you I still feel afraid sometimes, but it's not the constant companion that it used to be.

So, whether you're a survivor or know someone who is, remember that there's always hope. Counselling can be a guiding light out of the darkness of trauma, offering the chance to heal and build a brighter future. Please feel free to get in touch using the Contact Page.


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