In many animals there is a way to discharge this freeze state physiologically, utilizing deep breathing. Humans, along with many other domesticated animals, don't generally discharge the freeze response in this manner. So the trauma is held in the system, and the life-threat messages are kept alive and active in the unconscious.
The final result of this stored trauma energy is the inability to appropriately respond to further threats, an ability called "resiliency'. Having lost resiliency an individual then easily becomes vulnerable to any number of emotional and physical illnesses. What's more, they will continue to experience pain and illnesses their entire lifetime, until the trauma is dissipated!
Clearly, this issue is of critical importance in achieving optimal health and function, so it is well worth our time in understanding how this works.
The way in which the trauma is held in the system is through actual physiological changes in the brain, relating to memory structure. The emotional memory of the event becomes unconscious and hard wired in neural networks in a kind of "capsule' connecting all the experiences occurring with the trauma.
Experiences occurring with the traumatic event are about how your body remembers to do things like walk, run, ride a bike, play basketball, play a piano - skills and habits involving motor systems and sensory systems. These also include the smells, tastes, sounds, images, feelings (somatosensory events such as tingling in the arm, pain in the wrist, bracing of muscles), which get bundled together at the time of the trauma along with the strong emotions of fear and horror.
Now, because these elements are all bundled up together, re-experiencing these cues triggers the entire trauma response again and again. The memory of this past trauma event keeps recurring in the present moment, as if it had just happened or is actually happening now.
Neuro-sensitisation occurs in the neural nodes related to the capsule memory, and this means that anything occurring within the brain, such as a dream, can trigger the arousal of the bundle of memories and the trauma is re-experienced without an external trigger.
Well, I hear you say, I wasn't in a severe car accident, I wasn't in a war zone, I'm not traumatized like this, so why is this of any interest to me?
Read further and I'll show you why!
Next we need to take a brief look into the brain, at what is going on there while a trauma happens.
In Sympathetic arousal, a fear state emotionally, the limbic system of the brain gets activated. The amygdala, a part of this, sends the fear messages to the hippocampus and on up to the right side of the orbitofrontal cortex. This is where decisions get made about what to do with the fear signal do we get ready to fight, or do we decide to stand down? It gets decided here.
The cyngulate gyrus, also part of the limbic system, is in connection with the orbitofrontal cortex, and has the role of damping down the amygdala's activity if that's what the orbitofrontal cortex decides.
This next bit is very important:this very same area has a huge role in the social attunement between the infant and mother. We'll come back to it later.
In general most people will not develop a trauma response to say, a minor car accident at 10 mph, yet some will, suffering whiplash, pain, muscle rigidity and a whole host of symptoms typical of severe trauma.
These individuals lack the tone condition of resiliency. And this implies that a pre-existing condition exits in these people, in which a fear cue coupled with neurosensitisation predisposes them to re-arousal of a trauma that occurred at an earlier point in time. What they are really experiencing is an old trauma triggered by a present event, which need not be traumatic in and of itself.