Both Charles Darwin (1872) and Ivan Pavlov (1928) clearly understood that the goal of emotions is to bring about physical movement:
to help the organism get out of harm’s way, in the case of negative emotions, and to move it in the direction of the source of the stimulus in the case of positive ones.
For human beings the best predictor of something becoming traumatic seems to be a situation in which they no longer can imagine a way out; when fighting or fleeing no longer is an option and they feel overpowered and helpless.
As Darwin already pointed out: the emotions of fear, disgust, anger, or depression are signals to communicate to others to back off or protect. When a person is traumatized, these emotions do not produce the results for which they were intended:
The predator does not back off, desist, or protect, and whatever action the traumatized person takes fails to restore a sense of safety.
Just like small children loose the veneer of socialization and throw temper tantrums when they are frustrated, traumatized adults are prone to revert to primitive self-protective responses when they perceive certain stimuli as a threat. Once sensory triggers of past trauma activate the emotional brain to engage in its habitual protective devices, the resulting changes in sympathetic and parasympathetic activation interfere with effective executive function:
The higher brain functions have less control over behavior, causing a behavioral “regression.” Without well-functioning rational brains, individuals are prone to revert to rigid “fixed action patterns”: the automatic behavioral flight, fight, or freeze responses that are our evolutionary heritage of dealing with threat, and our individual implicit memories of how our own bodies once attempted to cope with the threat of being overwhelmed. The legacy of trauma is that these somatic (i.e., endocrine and motoric) patterns can be triggered by the slightest provocations, reactivating the physical response of the organism to past terror, abandonment, and helplessness, sometimes in exquisite detail.
Trauma and the Body A Sensorimotor Approach to Psychotherapy
Kekuni Minton (Author)
Pat Ogden (Author, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute)
Clare Pain (Author)