Trauma and the Brain

Recently I have found myself once again, and probably not for the last time, enthralled with human mind.  As a therapist, I am amazed by how the mind handles and processes trauma.  What happens in the human mind when something traumatic happens?  How do this process effect ones everyday life and functioning? Why is it important to understand what happens in the mind when a traumatic event occurs and how can it help us cope with PTSD, anxiety and depression that commonly occurs as a result?

As a therapist I have many people come in with trauma and PTSD, who feel like they are going “crazy” because of the symptoms and feelings they are experiencing.  One of first steps as a therapist is to educate a person on what is happening in the mind after a traumatic experience, so they can begin to calm down and understand that what they are experiencing is totally normal. The next step is to help the mind integrate this trauma to help ease the symptoms of PTSD and trauma.

So what happens to the brain when a traumatic event occurs? While there are many different theories out there on exactly what happens to the brain on trauma, my favorite  is explained by Bessel Van Der Folk, in his book “The Body Keeps Score.

As he explains it, when the brain’s alarm system is turned on, for example when a threat is present, it automatically triggers the oldest parts of our brain (e.g. our instinctual functions) to shut down part of our higher functioning brain (e.g. our conscious mind) and throws our mind into fight or flight response.

If we are able to successfully engage our flight or flight response, meaning we escape danger, we will eventually recover our internal “equilibrium” and gradually we will regain our higher function brain. If for some reason we cannot successfully engage our flight or flight system (for example a car accident, a war zone, or some other violent situation that is out of our control), the brain will keep releasing stress chemicals and the fight or flight response will continue activating in vain.  In this case the mind will keep sending signals to the body to escape the threat, even after the threat has ceased to exist.

Many theorists believe that if we are not able to engage in our flight or flight response successfully, then we are more prone to PTSD because the brain is still trying to fight a threat that doesn’t exist anymore.  This results in one living in a state of constant fight or flight, trying in vain to successfully ward off a threat that doesn’t exist.  This heightened response produces symptoms such as irritability, anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks, numbing, disassociation, and many more.  This heightened sympathetic response makes it harder for higher functions, such as our conscious and creative mind (our “personality”) to turn back on.  This in turn makes it more difficult to be spontaneous, fun and lively and return to what we would often refer to as “ourselves.”

The good news for trauma survivors and those who suffer with PTSD is there are many tools to help the brain shut of its fight or flight response. With specialized trauma therapy at Durango Counseling, clients begin to learn how to calm and relax the nervous system and, ultimately, how to integrate traumatic memories and move those memories to other parts of the brain so that they are no longer triggering a flight or fight response. Only with a calm nervous system can we being to integrate traumatic memories and begin to control the symptoms of PTSD and trauma.

Once we learn how to control the storms of PTSD and trauma, we can then begin to address traumatic memories head on, come back to the present moment, and stop fighting a threat that lives in the past to welcome back our creative, spontaneous and relaxed parasympathetic mind.