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.
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.
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