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How emotional Trauma Impacts Your Brain

Deep in the brain is an almond shaped organ called the Amygdala. You have one on both the left and the right side of your brain. Every animal that moves under its own power has this particular organ system. It is critical to survival. The Amygdala’s job is to constantly scan our environment and asking, “Am I safe? Am I safe?” and if the answer is no, then it sends out a chemical messenger known as norepinephrine or more commonly known as adrenaline. Adrenaline helps us to run and hide, stay and fight, or do whatever we need to do to be safe. The amygdala also is important in memory. It helps us to recall dangerous or unsafe situations and learn to avoid or manage them.

Near by the amygdala is another structure called the hippocampus. It is the major memory center of the brain. If we see a dog, the visual pathways connect to the hippocampus and we process, “oh that has 4 legs, a tail, and fur. It quickly runs through our “memory bank” and we determine it is a dog. Then the amygdala is alerted for us to recall how we feel about a dog. Do we love dogs? Are we afraid or dogs? Are we allergic? Have we ever interacted with a dog at all? This interpretation of how we feel about a dog is sent to our prefrontal cortex, where we initiate some action. We might run up and hug the dog, run screaming from the building, avoid the dog due to allergies, or walk around the area, because we don’t know what to do with the dog. This of course, happens extremely quickly and many times a day.

When we are exposed to a traumatic event our amygdala springs into action. Our heart and breathing rates increase to get blood flow to our arms and legs, so we can run and hide or stay and fight. Our pupils dilate so we can see better, our hearing becomes more acute to allow us to protect ourselves and be aware of threats in our environment. Our stress hormone, cortisol, also “kicks” in to regulate our bodily functions. It will divert resources to make sure we can do whatever we need to do to be safe. This is an amazing process and essential for survival. When the crisis is averted, our body goes back to normal, and we go about our day. For most experiences, we develop coping skills and remember situations to avoid and ways to deal with those circumstances that we can’t avoid.

However, if the experience is beyond OUR particular ability to cope, we may develop a trauma response. The events are traumatic, not because they are rare, but when they overwhelm our coping mechanisms. What is traumatic to one person, may not be for someone else. Our previous experience, our level of maturity, the support network around us, and our ability to take action; these are but a few of the elements that determine if the event will be tolerated or whether we will be overcome with our feelings of depression, fear, anxiety, nightmares, increased startle response, physical pain, or intrusive thoughts.

Children may have a difficult time, not just because of their lack of coping skills, but they also may not have the language skills to express themselves and their emotions. They may become more aggressive with their peers and family members, they may also regress to an earlier stage of development, i.e., a child who is potty trained may start wetting the bed. They may be frightened to be left alone or to have their parent or caretaker leave them.

For any of us, we may be “triggered” to react to a sudden change in the environment that might remind us in some way of our traumatic events. A loud noise, a smell, an unexpected change in the environment, may send off an alert to our amygdala and we may experience not just a feeling of fear or panic, but also the physical changes that occur in our bodies when adrenaline is released. Our response may be way out of proportion to the current situation, like a car back firing, but we have trouble self-soothing, and our body can take a long time to get back to “normal”. This trauma response may be very upsetting to us and also to others around us, especially if they are unaware of our history. Part of the recovery process is to begin to recognize earlier, our physical changes and learn coping skills to help us more quickly assess the current situation and then calm ourselves and ground ourselves and learn to manage our trauma response. This can be a long process, but the soon we start, the less suffering we have to endure.


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