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The Trauma Brain

Trauma occurs when we are overwhelmed with something fearful beyond our control, and this distress has no resolution.

Trauma is a state of disconnection from safety.

When we are triggered, this alerts us to stagnant unresolved, unhealed energy from the original trauma.

Neurobiology


When we feel fear, the amygdala (the brain’s alarm system) is activated and stimulates the fight or flight response whilst the left hemisphere of the brain, which is responsible for logic, order and sequence, is deactivated. This means we experience diminished emotional regulation and a loss of executive functioning. This response secretes stress hormones adrenaline, cortisol and catecholamines as well as opiates and oxytocin in order to help us flee or fight back.[1]

During this process the brain is programmed to run to home where safety can be restored, and stress hormones can come to a rest. The hypothalamic, pituitary and adrenal systems (the HPA axis) work together to send signals to the parasympathetic nervous system, via the vagus nerve (our 10th cranial nerve), putting the brakes on fight or flight and activating rest and digest, moving into our social engagement system.[2]

If this circuit is blocked, and one cannot take effective action to restore safety (for example in the event of immobilisation, being trapped, or if home is unsafe) the body is repeatedly triggered into defending itself. We are more likely to dissociate (fracture our consciousness) in order to cope with the physical and emotional overwhelm. This means once the threat has passed, the nervous system continues to be in a state of hypo or hyperarousal and fire electrical circuits to no avail. (This begins ongoing psychological problems such as PTSD or DID.)[3]

You may have heard of the polyvagal theory (the science of safety) developed by Dr Stephen Porges. Porges recognised the vagus nerve to be hugely important as it interfaces our bodies with the parasympathetic nervous system and sends the signal for 'back to normal'. His contributions in neurobiology affirms healing trauma is largely to do with repatterning the way our nervous system operates and strengthening the channels that activate our safety brakes.[4]




We are predisposed to trauma based on our childhood experience and access to emotional resources.

If we experience an absence of connection and safety during childhood as the brain is developing, the brain becomes accustomed to specialising in managing feelings of abandonment and fear.[5] Our default becomes survival mode. Instead of moving through life lead by our hearts, we move through life led by our fixation on gaining safety and avoiding pain. We defend our worth misguided by the idea people can take it away from us. We chase goals thinking they’ll bring us the worth we’re missing. We develop unhelpful thinking styles.




Source: psychology.tools

Growing up in an environment where we are unable to escape danger and have little or inconsistent emotional resources trains our brains and bodies to remain in a state of immobilisation and learned helplessness. Chronic arousal of the sympathetic nervous system also impairs the development of higher brain functioning. We may experience learning difficulties and develop memory loss (excess cortisol damages the hippocampus).[6]

The likelihood of moving through childhood without some kind of trauma is unheard of at this point in time. By virtue of how we are socialised, with our current understanding of mental health means collectively, we’re not entering into a system that supports us as we are, we’re entering into a system that supports us in the system, which by design keeps us in a state of constant stress.

When there is more support available to numb our feelings, than to feel and process our feelings, numbing and suppression become the normal. Chances are we weren’t raised in households that modelled to us how to express our emotions and communicate in healthy ways. This isn’t our caregiver’s fault; this is a collective global issue. As we re-sensitise ourselves to how much this current climate does not make sense, our desire for health allows us to reparent ourselves and make the changes we wish to see.

Review and Treatment

Trauma creates an overactive amygdala, keeps our sympathetic nervous system on high alert, disconnects us from our rational brain and throws people out of balance hormonally. This means that treating trauma with cognitive and talk therapies alone can be ineffective to a highly activated, fearful or angry person since it discounts the emotional engagement system. When the limbic system detects threat, the brain is in a state of panic where it is unable to reason and cognitively restructure. Therefore, trauma should be treated physiologically, taking into account the way the brain and nervous system interface with the mind and body. For example, somatic bodywork may be helpful in treating trauma in order to move through immobilisation. For talk therapy and cognitive reprocessing to be effective, one needs to first restore a sense of safety in order to calm down the internal alarm systems.


My Approach

In my one on one with clients I offer an integrated approach and draw on various cognitive, behavioural and somatic tools to suit your needs. I am certified in The Completion Process which is a guided inner child healing technique that aims to integrate fractured aspects of consciousness. (More info at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9jty-QG_N8c&vl=en)


Everyone goes through trauma. What helps release our suffering is when our level of support is as high as our level of personal challenge.



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[1] Bremner, J.D. (2002). Understanding trauma-related disorders from a mind-body perspective: Does stress damage the brain? New York: W.W. Norton & Company. [2][4]Porges, S. W. (2011). The Norton series on interpersonal neurobiology. The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation. New York, NY, US: W W Norton & Co. [3][5]Rothschild, B. (2000). The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment. New York: Norton.

Rothschild, B. (2011). Trauma Essentials: The Go-To Guide. New York: Norton

[5]Levine, Peter A. (2005). Healing trauma: a pioneering program for restoring the wisdom of your body. Boulder, CO: Sounds True


[6]Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Viking.

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