In my work as a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of trauma and PTSD, I feel one important part of treatment is helping my patients understand how trauma affects the brain and body. Often people will come into session reporting they walk around feeling anxious most of the time. Some people report frequent dissociation, flashbacks, nightmares, or inability to concentrate. People often experience great relief in learning they are not ‘crazy” as they may have thought previously.
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.
Although our brains are very complex organisms, having a basic understanding of how trauma affects us can be very useful. In the most basic sense, in order for our brains to be healthy and fully functioning, all of the different parts need to be talking to each other. Trauma by nature causes a Dis-integration in the parts of the brain. If you imagine the white house under a threat, everything shuts down, the doors all close, and everyone stays where they are at. On the most fundamental level, that’s essentially what happens in the brain when there’s a trauma. We have different pathways in the brain that exchange information. One of the pathways that is of interest in learning and memory is the pathway between our amygdala and our hippocampus.
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 trauma can affect our brains tremendously, the good news is that our brains can recover. We are always forming new pathways and creating new connections. One technique that can be helpful in trauma recovery is grounding. This involves being able to use our different senses to become present in the moment. For example, if I can identify 5 different colors in the room, it brings me back into the present moment. Often anxiety is future or past related so when we can get back into the present moment, we can begin to feel more comfortable in our bodies.
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.
Bio: Shannon is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a specialty focus in childhood trauma, rape and battering, and PTSD. She is a trauma therapist in Los Angeles and works with clients in her offices in Los Feliz and Torrance. Combining clinical experience with a passion to support women in repairing their relationships with themselves and others, she has supported many to create long-lasting recovery from destructive behaviors.