An Act of Survival

How to prevent and heal trauma after witnessing violence toward animals

Farmer John, a slaughterhouse on the outskirts of Los Angeles, is a haunting place. Transport trucks drive in full of pigs and leave empty. Every day, as many as 6,000 pigs lose their lives behind the facility’s barbed wire fences.

Many Sundays, Janet Martinez meets with fellow activists outside the slaughterhouse to give water to pigs through holes in the sides of the trucks.

“It’s heartbreaking to see so many innocent, helpless beings who have given up,” said Janet. “Sometimes they just look back at me with terrified eyes and stay huddled together.”

Janet struggles not to break down every time she returns home. Animal activists often deal with traumatic situations like this. Even reading about or watching a video of animals being hurt can be just as difficult.

Dr. Carrie Elk specializes in psychological trauma. She said it’s normal to feel post-traumatic stress after an experience where you feel threatened or you witness someone else threatened.

Understanding trauma and how the human brain records a traumatic experience can help someone prevent post-traumatic stress or know when to find treatment. The psoas, gluteus, and lower abdominal muscles are the first to respond in a threatening situation, explained Dr. Elk. “When that muscle group clenches, it sends a ‘danger’ message to your brain and you shift to your emergency system—your fight or flight. That’s when memories are stored differently as sensory memory.”

In normal conditions, people store memories like files in a cabinet, Dr. Elk said. The body takes in sights, sounds, and smells from an experience and files them nicely into a narrative memory. A person can recall that memory and explain what happened without a visceral reaction like sweating, shivering, or a racing heartbeat.

But when someone’s body is in fight-or-flight mode during a traumatic event, sights, smells, and sounds aren’t so neatly stored but are instead saved as fragments of sensory data. Usually the brain can correct this over time. But when it doesn’t, and the person experiences a similar sight, smell, or sound, it produces a traumatic response. This triggering of a past memory is PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

There are ways to stop the body from going into a fight-or-flight state, and these methods can help undercover investigators, activists like Janet, and MFA supporters who watch and share videos exposing animal abuse.

“If you are sitting in a chair and you have your feet firmly planted and at a 90-degree angle, try to lift yourself up without using your hands—that’s the clench that starts it,” explained Dr. Elk. If, in a traumatic situation, you can keep your body relaxed, then you won’t go into fight or flight. And the information will get stored in that chronological way.

To stop your abs from clenching, sit in the chair with your heels out. Put your hands behind your head and lean back. It’s almost impossible to clench your psoas muscles from this position, Dr. Elk suggested.

When preventing a traumatic experience isn’t possible, a trained therapist can help reprocess a memory.

"If my patients have memories they are hung up on, it causes mental health symptoms like anxiety and depression," said Dr. Elk. "But those are just the symptoms. If we correct the memory, the symptoms will fall away.”

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