It was the summer of 1996 and we were headed to Brooklyn to see some family. I loved those trips. I got to spend time with my cousins.
I finally got there, and everyone was sitting outside on the front stoop with music blasting from the radio. "Oh la la la", sung by the Fuguees, one of the hottest rap groups at the time, came on. I remember everyone singing and dancing to the song. To this day, when I hear that song, I go back to that summer day in Brooklyn visiting my family. I remember how I felt, who I was with and what was going on in my life in that moment. That song automatically triggers everything associated with that moment in my life. If I hear this song now, I start smiling, bopping my head and thinking of how much fun we had that day. Here is the second part to this particular trip. On our way to see our family, we got into a major car accident. No broken limbs, but the residue of that accident has stayed with us. It shows up a little differently though. That’s the thing about trauma. Sometimes you are not aware of the impact it has on you right away because the adrenaline is pumping and you are in survival mode. Your body and brain automatically go into one of the three preservative modes without you even thinking about it.
The brain stem typically has three responses: fight, flight or freeze. Once you go into any one of these three modes, you are not responding from the part of your brain that uses logic; it is strictly reflex (brain stem). There is no logical (prefrontal cortex) part of the brain being used.
After that particular accident, I still went to Brooklyn and went on to have a great trip with my family. It wasn't until the days, months, years later that I realized how that experience impacted me. I hated sitting in the front seat and if I did, I would find myself sitting in the passenger side of the car, pressing on my imaginary brake pad...but wait; I am not driving. I did not realize it; it happened unconsciously. It was an automatic response. My body was responding to my current situation as if I were re-experiencing the incident. I did not need any real danger to be present, but my body would react as if there was danger. In order to protect me it responded accordingly.
My body was telling me, listen, we have been in a situation like this before and based on that experience, you need to hit the imaginary brakes that you don't have. My brain was responding from the part of my brain that does not use logic; it is strictly reflex (brain stem). In instances where your body is responding automatically to what it perceives to be a threat, you need tools that you can use to help calm down and reassess.
Grounding skills and mindfulness tools can be great assets to assist you to get back to that logical part of the brain and then assess if you are in danger. I recommend people who have experienced trauma to find someone who has been trained to work with trauma. I say this because it is complex work. You need to identify someone who can incorporate some grounding techniques, mindfulness, relaxation skills, and challenge any cognitive distortions that may have developed.