I always share with people that they are having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. In other words, if someone suffers from a trauma, it makes sense that it would affect them in one way or another. I remember one particular patient staring at me in awe as we went through the neurobiology of trauma. It was as if she had spent decades trying to figure out why she felt chronically unsafe in her body and once she had the information, she felt she could stop waiting for her life to begin and she could begin navigating toward a solution.
Our amygdala is the part of our brain that is responsible for our fight-or-flight response. One issue with the amygdala is that it is bias toward the fear position and is really only interested in our survival. When it is over activated we experience anxiety and flashbacks. Our hippocampus on the other hand is more bias toward pro-social behavior. In other words, it’s the more reasonable part of the two. The hippocampus works on comparing different memories and organizing where they go. The problem with trauma that we mentioned before is it essentially shuts down the pathways and keeps everything where it is. Our amygdala will take precedent over our hippocampus because survival is our brains number one goal. When our hippocampus can’t get the information that the experience is over, we stay stuck in the trauma.
Another important part in trauma recovery is our Pre-frontal cortex. This is the part of our brain that is responsible for our executive functioning or our ability to process and reason. This is the part of our brain that is not fully developed until well into our 20s. Humans are born with an underdeveloped cortex so infants rely completely on their caregivers for cortical development. The age at which children are first traumatized, the frequency of their traumatic experiences, and the degree to which caregivers contribute to the event being traumatic all have a profound impact on the extent of their psychological damage.
In children, damage can be expressed in problems with self-regulation, aggression against self and others, problems with attention and dissociation, physical problems, and difficulties in self-concept and capacity to negotiate satisfactory interpersonal relationships. Trauma affects children differently at different developmental stages.
While working through trauma can be difficult, Bessel van der Kolk summed it up well in his book The Body Keeps The Score when he said “Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going inside ourselves.” When we can embrace what is happening in our bodies instead of spending our lives trying to avoid it, we can start to live and experience life rather than just survive.