Your Brain On Trauma

When my husband and I moved into our home, we discovered that we had an unusually sensitive smoke alarm system.

Because the alarms were connected and wired all throughout the house, when one was triggered, the high pitched blaring was all over the entire home. The sound was not just located in one room.  In other words, the system was highly vigilant and quick to alarm.  It seemed as if all that we had to do was turn on the stove or oven and the alarm would suddenly go off.

I could make a horrible joke about the fact that my dog now has PTSD from the alarm system.  But, unfortunately it is actually true.  Our dog, when we are in the kitchen, immediately runs upstairs and hides in the closet even though we replaced the entire system some time ago.  For Pepe the dog, kitchen+people= horrible loud noice=run and hide.

The story about our smoke alarms is a perfect example of how our brains work when we are traumatized.

PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is your brains way of feeling safe.  Our dog, Pepe, was conditioned to associate cooking with a loud blaring sound.  What does he do?  I can assure you that he doesn’t think to himself, “oh, they are just making food and besides, they changed the alarms a long time ago.” Our dog runs away from memory and association that there will be a horrible sound or threat.  PTSD is essentially the same.  It is the body staying stuck in high alert for the presence of danger.  You can thank our amygdala for this. It has the job of keeping you alive.  If you are reading this then it is done a great job!

Much like Pepe the dog, when we are trapped in a trauma response we are literally unable to assess if we are actually in danger.  I will explain why in a moment.

But first, how do we know that our bodies are actually trapped in a trauma response?

We can have painful thoughts, memories or even flashbacks. We can also have intense emotional responses.  We can feel helpless, anxious, ashamed, and afraid.  We can find ourselves blaming others or feel angry or aggressive.  We can also have persistent negative thinking and/or find ourselves going numb or not feeling. We can feel like Pepe- we want to run and hide or cancel our therapy session.

We also can have bodily changes.  We can feel jittery, sweaty, tight, or cold.  We can experience rage, tears, nightmares and insomnia.

Our behavior can change.  We can do things that avoid triggers to the trauma.  We can avoid specific people, places, ideas, or even things that we once loved. I had a patient who expressed that he stopped skateboarding, a love of his since childhood, after he saw an accident.

What I try to convey to my patients with PTSD is that they need to understand that neuroscience shows us how the brain changes on a very physical level when we experience trauma.

Abuse, assault, or even witnessing a tragedy, such as someone’s illness and death- can place us in a constant state of feeling on edge.   PTSD affects our emotions, our sense of stability, and both our physical as well as our mental health.  It affects our relationships both with ourselves and with others.

The good news about our brain is that because of neuroplasticity- our brains do change with the right kind of help.

These are some of the ways that we know how the brain changes with trauma:

Our amygdala- or reptilian brain actually gets bigger.  This means is that the amygdala becomes like my old smoke alarm in my house.  It will constantly scan for danger.  It become much more sensitive to potential threat.  It is doing a good job keeping you safe and alive.  The only problem is that this part of the brain doesn’t speak english.  Telling someone to “calm down” is like speaking Japanese to someone who only speaks another language.  It does not and will not compute!  Old school psychotherapy, unfortunately, used to call this “resistance.”

Brain scans also show that trauma affects the hippocampus.  This is the part of the brain that processes emotions and memories.  Trauma actually kills the cells in the hippocampus.  So as the amygdala, or smoke alarm, grows bigger- the hippocampus shrinks which makes it less effective in processing emotions.  It also affects our short term memory.  Patients sometimes can’t even remember something good that happened at the beginning of the session.  

 The hippocampus is what causes confusion around flashbacks or what is past and what is present. The problem is that it is hard to know what is what.  To make things more complicated, the hippocampus starts talking to the amygdala  setting off the smoke alarm.  This is the unending cyclical experience of PTSD.

Meanwhile, while the amygdala and hippocampus are freaking out together, our prefrontal cortex- the front part of our brain that thinks- also shrinks.  This is why it is difficult to think clearly or express ourselves.  Not only that- all of these changes affect our bodies.  When we are in hyper arousal, the stress of this can affect our adrenal glands.  This is also why people with PTSD can experience extreme fatigue,  depression, digestive issues,  chronic pain and even a lowered immune system.

Somatic Experiencing is a safe way to retrain our brain to get “unstuck” from the shock of trauma.

Talk therapy alone can often re-trigger trauma without understanding how to help.  To make matters worse, these trauma responses can be interpreted incorrectly further alienating, often stigmatizing and isolating the person seeking help.

In order to work with trauma- the therapy must be body based.   If you are someone suffering from PTSD and reading this blog, be sure to find the right person to help you.  Make certain that they are either certified as a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner or work with EMDR or other body based trainings.

We also know from brain scans that mindfulness practices such as meditation and yoga actually shrink the amygdala and encourage growth in the hippocampus. 

Trauma does not need to be a life sentence.  Our brains can change.  In order for the brain to change, it takes slowing down, patience and commitment.  The good news is that our brains can and do change with the correct treatment.  Neuroscience and brain scans prove this.  Change is possible.  With these body based treatments and cutting edge neuroscience, psychology can move into the 21st century finally treating trauma with the compassion and understanding that it deserves. 

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