Stressed. Stressed out. Burned out. Exhausted. Overwhelmed. How many times a day do we hear these or similar words uttered by ourselves or those around us? We don’t need to look very hard to see the many ways we have ramped up our lives the last few years: non-stop social media feeds, Google Assistant, 24-hour news channels, energy drinks, and protein bars - when did we get too busy for real food?
We’ve sped up our expectations of everything: delivery times, wireless connections, or the amount of time it should take someone to respond to a text we just sent.
We can identify many positives that have come from this boost in expectations: advances in medical technology, iPhones, and space exploration to name a few. While some would argue that this busyness is a sign of progress, it is more likely that it’s taxing our ability to cope – and that is taking a toll on all of us.
Our health, mental health, and relationships are showing signs we are pushing ourselves too hard. Anxiety-related challenges have risen dramatically. Workplace absenteeism due to mental health concerns is on the rise. There has been a proliferation of books and websites offering stress management tools.
Increased levels of chronic stress and anxiety show that we’re not adequately equipped for the demands of our modern world.
And this increased pressure and expectations becomes a more significant challenge for people who have experienced trauma. These high demands of modern life can be even trickier to navigate when there has been a history of painful or adverse life experiences. Trauma research demonstrates this in some important ways:
People with a history of trauma tend to have elevated levels of stress hormones already.
Their stress-response system can be altered making them more hypervigilant and on alert for any potential threat.
They can be more likely to see (and respond to) threat where none is intended.
They may be more easily overwhelmed when they face challenges.
It is important to underscore the fact that not everyone responds to traumatic experiences in these ways. For some, there can be a very different experience of coping and ability to handle stressful situations in life.
For those who have a decreased capacity cope with stressors, it can be helpful to make the connection to the impacts of past trauma – especially when substance misuse or addiction is also present.
The Vortex Model of Addiction: Overwhelmed
Here are some further thoughts about The Vortex Model of Addiction – expanding on the brief overview I gave when I introduced this model in a previous post. You can read the initial post here.
The Vortex Model of Addiction speaks to the progressive nature of addiction. Anyone who has experienced addiction can attest to the ways the impacts of addiction grows over time. But this model also speaks to the progressive nature of trauma symptoms. Following a traumatic event, some people experience enough support and resolution that enables them to return to a pre-trauma level of functioning.
For others, there can be a definite lack of resolution and healing – disruptive trauma symptoms can continue for years and decades. As addiction is progressive, so is trauma.
When someone is in a chronic state of being overwhelmed, they experience symptoms that fall into the category of hyper-arousal – a term referring to high activation in the nervous system. A helpful analogy can be thinking of it as a fully engaged gas pedal on a car. You can read more about hyper-arousal in this previous post.
Many of the experiences that fall into the overwhelmed category of the Vortex Model are the recognizable symptoms of anxiety or chronic stress:
A Nervous System on High Alert: Jittery and easily startled, more reactive, or more impulsive. There is often an increase in hyper-vigilance - always feeling “on guard” and watchful for any potential threat.
Physical Symptoms: Distressing physical symptoms are manifestations of chronic anxiety or stress as well an indication the fight/flight response has not resolved following a traumatic event. These physical symptoms can include gastrointestinal issues, muscle tension, elevated heart rate, excessive sweating, and fatigue.
Mental Symptoms: A “busy brain”, difficulty concentrating, mental fogginess, obsessive or irrational thoughts as well as overthinking are common experiences for those who are feeling overwhelmed. There can also be challenges with learning or practicing self-control.
Emotional Symptoms: A chronic state of stress or anxiety can contribute to challenges with regulating strong feelings. Following a traumatic experience, the ongoing experience can be one of re-living the primary emotions of trauma including heightened anxiety, fear, horror, or shame. There can also be a more significant struggle with expressing anger in appropriate ways.
Re-experiencing Symptoms: Following a traumatic event, someone may continue to relive their original trauma through trauma-based flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive images, or trauma triggers. Re-experiencing symptoms can be some of the most overwhelming experiences following a trauma.
Self-Destructive Behaviours: For overwhelmed individuals, particularly those with a history of trauma, self-destructive behaviours are often an attempt to “manage” the overwhelming experience of hyper-arousal. We see this in self-harm behaviours, disordered eating, compulsive sexual behaviours, and substance misuse.
The symptoms in this “overwhelmed” category are distressing and painful. While anxiety, stress, and traumatic experiences are common to the human condition, it is crucial that a person receives the support and help they need. When they do, many of these symptoms can resolve over time allowing someone to move back into a state of increased self-regulation and pre-trauma functioning. For some, therapy involves a longer process of developing tools and resources that support a move into greater emotional, relational, and mental health.
But what happens when someone doesn’t get the help and support they need? How long can they stay in a state of hyper-arousal and high-activation trauma symptoms? Not indefinitely!
The human nervous system is not wired to remain in a highly activated state for extended periods of time. What happens for those who are not able to heal and recover? What is the outcome when people don't have the tools or resources to cope with anxiety, chronic stress, or trauma?
Make sure to read the next post - The Vortex of Trauma & Addiction: Shutdown.