This Is Your Brain On Trauma: Your Essential Guide for Understanding What It Takes to Heal

Who hasn’t experienced the gap between knowing and doing? We can talk logically about how we got here, we can discuss how we “should” behave, we can even teach someone else about it, but when we’re upset, logic and reason fly out the window. Why?

Research shows that the area of the brain most distressed by a traumatic event is the limbic region. Upset from the past gets lodged here, waiting like a time bomb to go off again.

But the area of the brain engaged in talk therapy is mainly the neo-cortex region, where we reason things out and make logical decisions. By talking something through, we might gain perspective, but this process leaves untouched the part of the brain where the old upset actually lives. 

Consider my client Adrienne. When Adrienne, a woman in her mid-fifties, came to see me, my first thought was, “I wonder if I could hire her.” She moved with an air of efficiency, her purse perfectly matched to her shoes, her makeup with her clothes. I sensed this was the kind of woman who would competently do her work, mine, and everyone else’s, without a complaint. Taking my business hat off, my therapist mind said, “Over-responsible. An I-have-no-needs kind of person.” 

With no wasted words, we began her intake. For me, an intake is something like dumping out all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle onto a table. To start, I look for the pieces with edges, corners, and outlines, the experiences and circumstances that have shaped this person. What are the key themes that run through the story of his or her life? What clues do the highlights of that narrative give me about the person that he or she has may not yet understand? In all my years of therapy, I have never met anyone, no matter how unusual they might have seemed at first, whose behavior and challenges did not make sense eventually. My job is to keep putting pieces together until things begin to fit. 

As we began her intake, Adrienne shared that she was the youngest in her family, with a father who had suffered serious mental illness and had been in and out of psyche hospitals throughout her childhood. The shame she still felt about this seemed louder than any of her words about it. She also told me that she suffered from a debilitating case of M.S.

A red flag went up. In puzzle mode, I asked myself, “Why does she have this disease?” Mentally, I began thumbing through the lexicon of physical conditions and their corresponding emotional patterns that I had become familiar with in my years of practice until I came to it: Multiple sclerosis. Survival issues.

So I began digging for something in Adrienne's past that might have affected her own sense of safety in the world. As I interviewed, she mentioned a serious car accident at age six or seven. Car accidents mean trauma, a place where energy gets stuck. This was where we would start.

After instructing her to close her eyes, I asked, “What do you remember about the accident?” 

She remembered being in the car with her father, who was a traveling salesman. This was before the days of car seats or even regular seatbelt use, and Elizabeth sat next to him in the front. As she recounted the story, she told me about the sounds of screeching of metal, breaking glass. Upon impact, her body flew through the car’s front window.

Now she was out of her body, looking down on it from above. Up here, she felt peaceful, content. But when she looked down at her father, she saw that he was horribly upset. He was begging God to bring back his daughter.

Adrienne knew what she had to do. She didn’t really want to leave the realm of safety, love, and light where she had found herself. But she couldn’t bear to see her father suffering this way. Reluctantly she returned to the body below, assuaging her father’s guilt and pain.

In Adrienne’s case, this traumatic car accident had completely impacted the rest of her life. To explain how, I’d like to explore some of the physiological mechanisms of trauma, most of which I learned from Bessel Van Der Kolk, friend and author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.

Early in life, children hang out in the Theta brain state, a realm that exists beyond rational thinking. But Theta is also the brain state of trauma. Think of a time when you experienced or even just witnessed something like a serious car crash or other kind of accident. Do you remember how time slowed down? Your senses sharpened. Nothing was happening anymore but this horrible, unstoppable thing, which took every grain of your attention. To help you survive, your brain went into hyperfocus mode. Into Theta, the state of hypnosis and programming. What happens in this state gets recorded loudly, if you will.       

In addition, the brain’s responses to trauma originate not in the center of reason, the neocortex, but in the limbic system. This part of the brain exists in all mammals that live in groups and nurture their young. In large part, this is the part of the brain that decides what we like, hate, don’t care about, who we love and who we don’t, who we want to take to bed, what we remember and what we forgot. Along with being the seat of emotions, the limbic system manages our reaction to what we perceive as a potentially dangerous situation. 

The amygdala sits at the center of the limbic system and serves as your first line of defense in looking for danger. It works a lot like a smoke alarm. Think of that smoke detector in your kitchen. Hasn’t it gone off plenty of times when the only thing happening was an overcooked hamburger? Sometimes when there’s smoke, there isn’t yet a fire. But a smoke alarm doesn’t have the capability to decide if there’s any real threat at hand. That alarm goes off, and you have to figure out, are there flames happening here, or did I just forget to clean the oven?

Your amygdala functions the same way. When it perceives a threat, it sends a signal to the rest of your brain to pay attention. Just like at home, you tune in carefully to everything around you, on alert for a potential threat.

Once the amygdala starts this alarm, it begins shutting down the neocortex, the “smarts” of your brain where you think things through and make rational decisions. It wants all of your brain power freed up to fight, flee, or freeze. The louder the alarm the amygdala sends to the rest of your system, the more the reasoning and decision-making part of your brain shuts down. After all, if a man with red hair puts a gun to your head, you don’t need to spend even a fraction of a second on the thought, “I wonder if he dyes his hair.” You just need to get away from that gun or get it away from him.

For many of us, though, this situation will likely inspire not fight or flight, but freeze. Unless you have combat training or track and field talents similar to the Roadrunner, you don’t stand much of a chance of survival apart from freezing up and doing exactly what the man says. In this mode, your brain will shift gears into that hyperfocused Theta state mentioned above. The hippocampus, where we record memories and the amygdala’s favorite next-door neighbor, is recording every minute of this scene. 

At the same time, in the trauma freeze state, your consciousness will leave your body, a phenomenon medically referred to as going into shock. The brain pumps out numbing chemicals that make the scene feel strangely unreal and far away, even while it records each moment of it carefully. That way, if the man shoots at you, you won’t be around to feel it, but if you survive, you’ll have a record of what to avoid in the future.

What does that mean for you in the long run? Let’s say you manage to get yourself out of that situation alive. The fact that you could not take direct action during the encounter to remove yourself from the threat of the gun means that even though you are no longer trapped by the gunman, the energy of the experience, both the vivid memory and all the feelings that came with it, is trapped inside your brain. Your amygdala has a new setting, a trigger. Thanks to the help of the hippocampus and a flood of neurochemicals, it has carefully chronicled the connection between the barrel of a gun in your face and a man with red hair. Just seeing the color of that hair on someone else could be enough to trigger this old alarm, sending you into fight, flight, or freeze all over again.

On top of that, the part of you that split off during this traumatic event remains disconnected from the present-time you. Instead, it vigilantly guards the memory of this experience and remains on alert constantly, scanning every scene for something like this that could happen again. In essence, it only lives inside that traumatic experience. In the world around you, that’s what it sees, all that it can see. It even recreates it.

This is what some researchers have called “the dark side” of neuroplascticity. So many amazing research has shown the incredible flexibility of the brain and how it can heal itself. But all of its high-end features can also lock us into behaviors that we no longer need.

Let’s return to Adrienne, my client who almost died in a serious car accident at a very young age. Adrienne admitted she had never felt safe in the world since this accident. After the accident, she had devoted her whole childhood to the task of caring for and pleasing her father.

With our understanding of the Theta brain state that predominates childhood, together with the hyperfocus that turns on during a traumatic experience, we can see why her decision to return to her body to care for her father had shaped her personality so powerfully. From the Theta state, this choice was not simply an idea or thought. It was a program. It got lodged as “the way things are.”

Since then, her body had grown, but a part of her was still the child who had returned to spare her father grief. In this moment of big trauma, a piece of Adrienne had gotten stuck in the experience and replayed it as though time had never passed. That part of Adrienne had been making most of the big decisions in her life. When she married, she transferred the pattern she had begun with her father over to her husband. All her time and energy went into taking care of him, and without him, she did not feel safe. Just as she had done with her father, she now devoted her whole life to her husband.

Part of the reason this crash had impacted Adrienne so profoundly came from the level of trauma she experienced. In fact, the threat of death had been more than theoretical. Rescuers actually found a tire track over her tiny body. To compensate, that body had pumped out its highest dose of numbing chemicals, and Elizabeth had even unhooked from the body enough to sense a realm beyond this one. All the body’s mechanism’s for trauma had played a role in etching this scene into her awareness.

Because trauma happens in Theta, anything said during a traumatic experience registers as a program with the same intensity and energy as the trauma itself. If a father screams at his son, “Are you stupid or what?” as he bashes the child’s head against the toilet, then this message gets colored with a large dose terror and importance. Compare this to a scene where a distant uncle jabs an upset nephew playfully in the ribs and says, “Hey, are you stupid or what?” Of course, we might hope that neither of these would occur. But of the two, the second one is less likely to mangle the child’s self-image permanently. 

To help Adrienne heal her own self-image, I had to take her back to the place where the accident happened. Using hypnotic techniques, I slowed my voice, encouraging her to entrain in a slower brain state. Then we switched into the realm of imagination, into Theta.

“Go back to the car accident in your mind. What do you see?”

There it was. The screeching cars, the sound of glass. The sight of her father, far below, and the feeling of being surrounded by a blissful, infinite love. She didn’t want to leave that place. 

In fact, a part of her never had. If she was going to live fully, we had to get that part of her back to the Here and Now.

“Let’s talk to that little girl,” I told her. “She needs your help growing up.”

And over the remainder of the session, that’s what we did. We worked together, in an altered brain state,  to help the traumatized part of herself to come back into present time. 

Within months, Adrienne wouldn’t need me anymore. Her M.S. symptoms became less and less frequent, until she could hardly remember what it felt like to suffer from the disease. By releasing old trauma, she found a way to finally feel safe in her own skin.

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