Archive of ‘Cognitive Functioning’ category

Trauma and The Brain

I believe when helping individuals recover from traumatic events they have experienced the first step is to help them understand just how trauma affects the body. And it does indeed affect your whole body, specifically your brain. Today I’m going to talk about trauma and the brain and give a brief overview of what happens in your brain during and after a traumatic event. First I’d like to point out that the definition of trauma lies on a broad spectrum and that the experience of trauma is subjective. I think of trauma as a high level of emotional or mental distress, and what qualifies as a “high level” varies from person to person. Here is a simple definition of trauma by researchers Duros and Crowley (2014): Too much too fast, too much too long, or not enough for too long.

By: Susanna Wetherington, LPC-Intern Supervised by Lora Ferguson, LPC-S

By: Susanna Wetherington, LPC-Intern
Supervised by Lora Ferguson, LPC-S

When trauma is experienced, the body becomes dysregulated because some systems go “offline” in order to attend to the emergency at hand. This dysregulation of the nervous system results in distortion and fragmentation of memory, perception, beliefs and emotions (Van der Kolk). Lets get a closer look at how this happens. It is important to note that what I am going to explain happens reflexively, meaning we have no control of how the process unfolds. When information comes into the brain through the senses, that information is directed to the amygdala. The amygdala can be thought of as the brain’s “smoke detector,” constantly scanning (5 times a second, to be precise) for danger. It determines if any stimulus in the environment is dangerous. If danger is perceived, then the amygdala gets the nervous system going. The thalamus signals the brain stem to release norepinephrine, a stimulant, throughout the entire brain. The hypothalamus sends a signal to prompt the pituitary gland, which then signals the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and coritsol so the body can jump into action. When cortisol floods the brain, the hippocampus shuts down. This is important because the hippocampus is responsible for processing explicit memory – the parts of memory that can be explained with words, such as the where and when of an experience, visuals, sounds, and smells. The problem is that since this part of the brain shuts down these parts of the experience do not get processed along with implicit memory – the parts of memory that contain body sensations and emotions. Since these two parts of memory of the event are not processed together and thus stored separately, the experience of the traumatic event gets fragmented. So, when something in the environment triggers the physical sensations or emotions that were present during the trauma, there is no activation of the part of the memory (explicit) that indicates time and place. As far as the body and brain are concerned, there is currently a real and present danger and the body reacts accordingly. As you can imagine, this can be very difficult for the individual having this experience. You could be going through your day as you usually would, and then for no obvious reason you are experiencing panic, fear, anger or sadness. Some wonder if they are losing their mind because they don’t understand why this is happening! My hope is that in explaining what happens in the brain when a distressing event occurs, that relief can settle in because there is now an understanding that this is not “crazy” but a biological result of distress. Once you understand what is happening, you are much more able to address it with helpful techniques to calm down the nervous system.

References:

Duros, P., & Crowley, D. (2014). The body comes to therapy too. Clinical Social Work Journal. doi:10.1007/s10615-014-0486-1

Van der Kolk, Bessel, MD., “The Body keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” Peguin Press Viking, New York, 2014


Move, Eat, and Sleep Your Way to a Healthier Brain

A client in their early thirties told me recently that losing his mental faculties would be one of the scariest things he could imagine. I think most of us would agree that the thought of losing our memory or having decreased cognitive functioning is terrifying. New studies are showing that memory complaints are linked (across all age groups) to poor health and lifestyle factors. The bad news is that more young people are reporting memory problems. The good news is that exercise, learning, and making healthy lifestyle choices might improve your cognitive functioning.

Jennifer Alley, LPC

By: Jennifer Alley, LPC

One study reported in Medical News Today suggested that thinking skills tend to be best in individuals who had better cardiovascular fitness when they were young. Another study, also from Medical News Today, said that research now shows a connection between narrowing arteries and memory issues. A new study by University of California, Los Angeles, published in PLOS ONE, found that risk factors like depression, diabetes, obesity, and smoking increased the probability of memory complaints across all age groups, including young adults (ages 18-39). And, regardless of age, the strongest risk factor found was depression for perceived memory issues.

Of course, there are genetic factors and diseases that may unfortunately negatively impact cognitive function in individuals who are making healthy lifestyle choices. However, here are tips from researchers and experts to best protect your brain:

  •  Get regular exercise
  •  Avoid smoking
  •  Further your education/learn/keep your brain stimulated
  •  Have your blood pressure checked regularly
  •  Seek help/treatment for depression/depressive symptoms
  •  Have an active social life
  •  Eat a healthy diet
  •  Get quality sleep (95% adults who get less than seven hours on a routine basis experience decreased physical and mental performance)
  •  Find ways to manage your stress

We urge parents who might be reading this to help your children start learning about living a healthy life now. Here are some ideas:

  •  Exercise as a family
  •  Go on family walks
  •  Play ball/chase/tag outside
  •  Go swimming
  •  Plan meals and snacks that are healthy (it’s a good idea to shop the perimeter of the grocery store where most of the whole foods are)
  •  Teach them fun ways to unwind (reading, playing, taking deep breaths, moving their bodies, dancing)
  •  Have consistent bedtime routines and schedules. See below to make sure everyone is getting enough sleep:
    • < 12 months old: 14-16 hours per day
    • 1-3 years old: 12-14 hours per day
    • 3-6 years old: 10-12 hours per day
    • 7-12 years old: 10-11 hours per day
    • 12-18 years old: 8-9 hours per day
    • Adults: varies but generally 7-9 hours to function optimally

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