Dealing with Psychological Threats
Our human brain is wired to detect and respond to threats as a natural and adaptive response that has helped humans survive. Some of the threats we face are psychological threats that can significantly impact our mental health and how we respond to situations or people.
The brain's response to psychological threats is complex and involves multiple regions and systems. When our brains sense danger, it activates the Automatic Nervous System (ANS), activating a fight, flight or freeze response. The body then releases the cortisol that causes the person to stay alert. The cortisol also triggers the release of glucose from the liver for fast energy during distress.
Unresolved childhood or adult traumatic experience often lead to chronic stress or anxiety, which dysregulates the system in the brain, causing it to stay on a state of high alert. A dysregulated brain that is hypervigilance may perceive situations or people as highly dangerous, even when it is not. Staying on constant high vigilance leads to various psychological and physical symptoms, including difficulty concentrating and insomnia.
Signs that you are under psychological threat include:
• Difficulty to breath or rapid breathing
• Panic attack
• Extreme fear about the situation or person and wanting to avoid it
• Feeling like running away
• Losing focus on the actual situation and getting stuck on thinking about too many 'what if'
• Feeling overwhelmed and preoccupied with intense emotions such as fear, anger, detachment, hopelessness, and giving up.
What to do when you are under psychological threat?
• Take a deep breath.
• Acknowledge that you are frightened
• Practice self-soothing, such as counting the same colour items, connecting with your five senses, or weighing the evidence for and against the reality of the threat.
• Create a supportive network that can support you when distressed by psychological threats.
Psychotherapy treatments for psychological threat include talk therapy like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and alternative therapy like EMDR and Expressive Art Therapy. CBT is a form of talk therapy that helps individuals identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviours that contribute to psychological distress. It seeks to restructure the brain by altering the activation in the prefrontal cortex to establish new neural pathways via neutral thinking.
However, while CBT is effective in helping with the coping strategy and cognitive restructuring, it has limitations in processing the traumatic material. The reason is that CBT works with the brain's prefrontal cortex, which stores cognitive and functioning skills, while traumatic materials are stored subconsciously in the limbic system. When someone experiences a traumatic event, the memory and its associated emotion become imprinted in the hippocampus and the amygdala, which are the region of the brain primarily associated with emotional processes, well as the central nervous system of the body. Therefore, people who would like to work on the issues which trigger psychological threats will find trauma-informed psychotherapy treatments which access and process unconscious materials, such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Brainspotting (BSP), Internal Family System (IFS), Somatic Experiencing (SE) or Expressive Therapy, to be effective.
Living with perceived psychological threats is difficult, as it causes you to be hyperalert constantly. If you feel that you are always experiencing psychological threats, please consider consulting a professional clinician with experience in working with unconscious traumatic materials. Eliminating the perceived psychological threats will lead to emotional healing and improve health, leading to a better quality of life.
Restoring Peace is a private mental health clinic which provides counselling and psychotherapy services for children, adolescents, youths and adult individuals, couples and groups with anxiety, depression, trauma, grief and various mental health and relationship challenges. For more information, please visit www.restoringpeace.com.sg or WhatsApp at +65 8889 1848. For periodic updates, we invite you to join our telegram group, https://t.me/restoringpeace.
Keywords: counselling, psychotherapy, mental health, trauma, psychological, threats, brain, anxiety, depression, grief, stress, CBT, EMDR. IFS, somatic, emotion