Re-setting the smoke detector
The human brain’s primary function is to keep us alive. It does a very good job too; largely undetected, it makes sure that we keep breathing, that our temperature remains normal, that our hormones are well-regulated etc.
It also uses our senses to constantly scan the environment to check for danger. This happens in an almond-shaped area of the brain called the amygdala. Bessel van der Kolk calls this part of the brain the “smoke detector”, because of its role in sensing and acting upon danger, like a smoke detector which monitors its environment for evidence of fire, a possible threat to life. If danger is detected, messages are sent which provoke the classic “fight or flight” response of attacking the threat or running away. If neither of these is an option, the “freeze” response is used.
In his book, “The Body keeps the Score”, der Kolk’s team read a script of a volunteer’s traumatic incident to them while they were in an fMRI scanner, which can record brain activity in real time. Der Kolk saw that the limbic system, which includes the amygdala, showed the greatest response. This area of the brain reacted to the words by sending messages to activate their body’s stress response.
As staying alive is so important, the amygdala can take control of how the body reacts to the perceived stress. Ordinarily, this response is mediated by another structure in the brain, the medial pre-frontal cortex or MPFC. This sits at the front of the brain, above the eyes. Der Kolk calls this, “the watchtower”. As long as we are not too upset, the MPFC can intervene and assess whether the smell of smoke is due to a raging fire (or, in my case, a volcano) or is simply someone burning some leaves in their garden, ten houses away. Ah, no need to take drastic action, then, says the MPFC after analysing more data than the amygdala has acted upon. “Stand down, body, we’re OK, it’s safe”.
The problem is, that in traumatised people, the MPFC keeps getting over-ridden by the amygdala. For people who have rarely, if ever, felt safe, the amygdala is constantly running on a state of high alert. When there is additional input from our senses; we see, hear, smell, touch something, someone, that might be dangerous (or echoes a previous threat) our emotional and our body’s arousal is swift and we react in ways which are often, “over the top”.
I remember reading many years ago that people who have been sexually abused as a child have, “an enhanced startle reflex”. That made perfect sense to me, as I would literally jump at all sorts of (to other people) very innocuous things. I later learnt that what had happened was that I had been triggered, by a sound, a look, a word, a smell or whatever, and my smoke detector had immediately sent me “back there”, when I was genuinely under threat. It was very tiring to constantly feel on edge, as my smoke detector, having had many, many genuine experiences of real danger and emotional distress when I was a child, had gradually ramped up its setting to “extremely high”.
One of the key things that helped me to realise that I am recovered is that I started noticing that I felt so much calmer. During counselling sessions and in EMDR sessions, I gradually realised that my smoke detector had quietly turned its settings down, from the 8 – 9 it used to be at, to a much, much more comfortable 1 – 2. I could get on with my life without that almost constant fear of something bad happening. This came about through my mind working out that I was safe. My watchtower had worked out how to intervene and soothe the smoke detector and cancel the “Fire!” alarm.
My brain took a while to catch up, but, through various EMDR sessions, I learnt to “date stamp” the incidents of abuse I had experienced and to leave them in the past. They are not happening now. I do not need to take urgent action, which inevitably meant freezing, as there was no escape, no fight or flight, back then.
I am safe. My smoke detector is still scanning but if it smells smoke, the watchtower checks it out and I can decide whether I need to do anything or whether it’s just a false alarm.