Trauma and the Brain

One of my favorite parts of my Master’s research was trauma and how it affects the brain. Have you ever been in a car accident or lived through something sudden and traumatic? Did you notice how your body responded and what you can and cannot recollect? When working with survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse, I have noticed when they are asked to describe the event that occurred they remember in fragments and specific detail. As a whole, the story has no time or what we would normally recall from memory like a conversation that took place. However, other details are remembered in great detail such as smell, sounds, taste, and touch. Pain may be less remembered however the overwhelming fear of death can consume the individual. The mind goes into survival mode and typically acts out in a way to protect itself such as flight, fright, or freeze. Depending on past circumstances the mind will make a decision on what is the best scenario to stay alive.

Once a person has survived the event you may notice it takes months or even years for a person to recover from the event. Random smells or sounds may trigger a person into reliving their traumatic story all over again. The longer the trauma is suppressed, the greater chance the trauma will hinder a person from living a healthy life. In order to better describe what I am speaking of, let us explore the mind in greater detail.

1.) Reptilian Brain or the lizard brain contains the cerebellum which is the most primitive part of our brain that controls reflexive behaviors, muscle control, balance, breathing, and reproduction. Basically all our independent responses and primary functions that all living things have in common.

2.) Mammalian Brain or the midbrain is the limbic system which is unique to all mammals. This part of the brain is very complex and is the center of emotion and learning. This part of the brain decides what is pleasurable and what is painful or distressing. Within this area of the brain contains the amygdala and hypothalamus. The amygdala acts as our own personal body guards. It scans for threat or danger. When an event occurs, the amygdala will identify the data and if it is received as non-threatening, the data is sent to the neocortex. This information is then stored and acquired over the years.

So what happens to our brain when something traumatic happens? First the amygdala signals danger which then activates both the limbic brain and the reptilian brain in three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. Instead of the brain processing information as it normally would, it goes into a protective and automatic response. Even after time has passed, the thalamus remains active and on high alert, which can be triggered by anything reminiscent of the original danger.

Our mammalian brain does not have a concept of time and past, present, future are all one in the same. This could explain why people who have dealt with a traumatic event are or seem stuck in the past. The problem is this trauma was never meant to be stored in the limbic system long term, but has now become stuck. This part of the brain was designed to keep us safe, but not intended to sustain this degree of heightened response.

What is the best treatment for someone experiencing trauma?

1.) Early treatment to trauma is best practice. This facilitates change and the intervention can be as simple as empathy to the trauma, validation to experience, and comfort. Changing the brain takes time, hard work, and repetition but the good news is it can change. The longer the trauma is stored in the brain the harder you have to work to rewire the brain.

2.) Long term treatment and psychotherapy could be the best choice you can make to live a healthier life. Here you will address trauma, PTSD, coping skills, different ways of thinking, anxiety and relaxation techniques.

3.) Adding a body-based mindfulness technique is also beneficial to fear recovery. Taking time to quiet the fear center will better strengthen the shining center and regulate emotion.

Are you struggling with a traumatic event or past traumatic event? Do you have a friend or family member who is involved in a traumatic event? A licensed mental health professional can help. Please call Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to make an appointment with one of our experienced Orlando counselors.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
by Bessel van der Kolk M.D. (Author)

Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship
by Laurence Heller Ph.D. (Author), Aline LaPierre Psy.D. (Author)


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