Trauma and the Brain

The human body has the  ability to grow, develop, and change. There are three main aspects to the human form: physical, emotional, and psychological. Within each of these aspects, adaptation occurs depending on genetics and environmental influences. When subjecting the human form to different stressors, our minds and bodies are wired toward health, wellness, and survival. For example, if someone is training for a marathon. The person will push his/her body to its limitations. Exercising and exhausting muscles in order to repair and strengthen the body. This amount of stress on the body is challenging, but over time the body adapts and is fortified because of the stress. Or think back to your first relationship-the concept of being “lovesick” is real. You can’t eat or sleep. Your whole mind is consumed. Your brain is being flooded with chemicals like dopamine and norepinephrine. These hormones narrow your focus, constricting your blood vessels, dilating your pupils. The body only has so many ways of responding. So the very chemicals that aid in falling in love, are also some of the same hormones that are secreted when we endure a trauma.

So what exactly is going on when we experience trauma, and more importantly, is it possible to recover? The connection between memory and traumatic stress response is strong. This is why one of the main features of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is flashbacks to the event. Trauma can (loosely) be divided into two categories. One time big T trauma; and developmental/complex trauma. Big T trauma is something that occurs one time-like getting in a car accident or witnessing 9/11. Developmental or complex trauma is multiple or chronic adverse experiences that occur during development; usually of interpersonal nature. There are many types of developmental trauma including physical, sexual, emotional abuse; community violence and neglect.

During a time of traumatic stress the mind goes into self preservation mode. The sympathetic part of our nervous system clicks ‘on’ and activates the release of norepinephrine, or adrenaline. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, normal bodily functions shut down in order to preserve energy to defend the perceived threat. This means digestions shuts down, our hearts begin to beat faster-we become focused on what’s in front of us, and we have motivations to fight, flight, freeze, fawn or withdraw. This is the body’s natural defense system; it is healthy and survivalistic. Without this sophisticated system, human life would probably exist.

Here’s the thing though; after the traumatic event occurs and we are out of the environment- our bodies and minds have to process through what just happened. And this is where things can get tricky. We are perceptive creatures, so our realities are a constant calculation of different factors and variables to help us ward off threat. And things we remember from our past, can have physiological bodily responses in the present time.

A memory is “something you remember from the past, a recollection.” Memory can be recalled through external stimuli, like driving past the house you grew up in, or internal stimuli, a familiar scent that takes you to a time in your past. Memories are more than just images, they are feelings and states of mind. And the brain is a highly complex electrical system that works with the other parts of the body, and the environment around you-so information is constantly being taken in a processed.

When working with clients, I like to use the library metaphor to describe how memories are stored in our brain. This is a loose representation of memory, and it is far more complex than how I’m describing; but it will help illustrate my point.  When you go into a library, each book is itemized and has its ‘place’, so in the off chance you need to retrieve that memory, you know how to find it. Like when you meet up with old friends and someone brings up high school graduation. You can easily go into your library of memories, and appropriately bring up the feelings, the images, and the thoughts associated with high school graduation. You can talk about the event, reminisce with your friends, then when you’re done with the conversation-your brain returns the memory to its rightful place in your library of memories. You will not continue to think about this event, until another trigger will tap into that memory web. Now imagine that certain memories (feelings, thoughts, states of mind)  are not chronicled, and these books (memories) are thrown around random places in your mind. So you may be going about your day, and BOOM all of a sudden you’re thinking about that one time in the 3rd grade you did not get picked for softball. A cascade of events go through your mind- you’re feeling rejected and hurt, the same way you did all those years ago. You’re having a response in the present, to a past event. These unprocessed memories are like books thrown around a library. And you may bump into them randomly-and go right back into that traumatic physiological response.

These are unprocessed memories. Ones that have not found their rightful place in the library-thus it’s very difficult for the individual to retrieve them appropriately. So inappropriate retrieval happens, and actually can retraumatize the person. So, there may be a new memory in the present moment, being triggered by the past-that is traumatically stressful again. Did that all make sense? Basically, every moment is an opportunity to heal past trauma, to stay stuck, or to be retraumatized again.

So, how do we process through terrible events in life? No two people are identical; and certainly some personalities are more resilient (this is a topic for another post). It’s also important to keep in mind that one time trauma is different than pervasive developmental trauma. There are more memories and belief systems created when we have lived with interpersonal violence, neglect, and abuse. Nonetheless, healing involves three main components: authentic affect, meaning making, and time. Authentic affect is feeling all the feelings in a supportive and loving environment. One cannot go around the feelings, one must go through the feelings and allow for the transformation to occur. The second part of healing involves meaning making. We are conscious creatures, who use stories to help understand the world around us. And we too, tell ourselves stories about our lives. The good and the bad. So, looking at the meaning of this trauma, and helping making a more complete life narrative. Lastly is time. Giving yourself the gift of time to understand and heal your mind and body. Understanding this will be an ongoing process in life, and seeing this as an opportunity rather than a nuisance.

It’s paramount to find a supportive environment to heal. Perhaps it is a yoga class, a church group, or talking with your mom on the phone everyday. The more you create supportive networks around you to facilitate processing, the faster you will heal. That being said, if you don’t know where to begin, or feel you need a more concentrated space of healing, I recommend finding a trusted therapist to talk with. There are many kinds of therapies designed to help heal trauma including, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). It is a specific type of therapy to help the brain heal itself from the suffering of its past.

PTSD is an going problem in our country and many people (veterans and others) go lifetimes without help. If you or someone you know is suffering please reach out for help. You are not alone.

I’m grateful to all the men and women who bravely gave of themselves to protect our country. I wish everyone a safe and healing Veterans Day.