May 1, 2020

Trauma And The Brain

Prevention at Home Video Education Series

YWCA Spokane staff have joined together to create a unique online engagement opportunity focused on cultivating increased community education and awareness surrounding issues related to intimate partner domestic violence. The eleven-part video series presents engaging, educational content for individuals from any background or current knowledge base. The videos and blog posts also offer watchers an opportunity to get to know YWCA Spokane advocates on a personal level; each contributor brings their own personality into their writing and presentation style. Each topic within the series has its own blog post, like this one, including a video. All of the other topics in the series are linked below. As you watch these videos and read the blog posts, we hope that you will gain more knowledge, explore topics that you may not have been exposed to, and empower yourself and those around to be in healthier, happier relationships. Thank you for taking the time to further your education, awareness, and understanding surrounding these critical issues. 


Trauma and the Brain

 

It’s really common to think of the brain and the body as separate. In reality though, they are intrinsically and irrevocably linked. All of us are covered with nerve cells, everywhere, inside and outside. We have nerve cells on the tips of our fingers, along our skin, inside our intestines, in the connections between our muscle and tissue groups, in more places than I can name honestly. All of these cells function, in some way, to share information with the brain. The brain, in turn, then mediates all this information, decides how we feel, in our body through our somatic experience, and in our affective state, through our emotions. 

It’s easy for most of us to understand how physical experiences are connected to mental experiences, we’re trained to think this way. For example, with a very basic understanding of the nervous system, we can conceptualize how stubbing one’s toe sends pain signals to the brain. In fact, this is common sense to many of us. However, we’re not necessarily taught to understand or think about how mental experiences are connected to physical experiences. 

I could talk at length about the connections between the mind, the body, and the brain, there’s a lot of material to cover there! Today, I’m going to focus on understanding trauma responses in the context of the relationships between the brain and body. I hope you’ll find this helpful, as I am, in understanding how I, myself, and those around me respond to stress and trauma, and in promoting holistic healing practices. 

Outside of the nervous system, there’s one other major bodily system that it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of for this conversation, the endocrine system! The endocrine system is also a major messaging system throughout the body, which communicates in the language of hormones. The endocrine system interacts with the nervous system in many ways, including through the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal access, or the HPA access. When we encounter situations that are challenging, threatening, or uncontrollable, such as traumatic situations, a cascade of events is activated within the HPA axis, which we recognize as the stress response. What happens when you’re upset? Your heart may race, your palms may sweat, you may want to run away, or maybe you find yourself frozen in place. Perhaps you’ve heard these reactions referred to as the fight or flight response, or, more accurately, the fight-flight-or freeze response. These stress reactions which we recognize as within the fight-flight-or freeze response system developed to help us handle difficult situations in our environment. During periods of prolonged stress, repeated traumas, or repeated experiencing of past trauma, (which can happen in people who experience PTSD), the stress response system loses its adaptive advantage. Our body is continuously readying us to conquer a challenge which we may not actually have the capability or resources needed to overcome, and we can be given no time to rest, on an emotional or physiological level. We know that prolonged stress response can cause real damage to the body. If not properly treated, this can manifest in both mental and physical health disorders, including depression, PTSD, immune disorders, chronic fatigue, and metabolic disorders. 

Let’s revisit our friend, the brain. I heard an analogy once that compared the brain to Russian nesting dolls. I love this because it illustrates in a concrete way how the outer parts of the brain are generally the most complex, detailed, and newest sections of the brain while the inner parts of the brain are generally the older, more generic, and simpler parts of the brain. The brain can be divided into three basic regions, the reptilian brain, the limbic system, and the neocortex. The reptilian brain is the innermost part of our brain and controls our basic functions. In short, its job is to keep us alive. The limbic system exists in the mid-level space of our brain, and can be thought of as a sort of emotional control center; it is responsible for our fear and pleasure responses. Our neocortex is the outermost part of our brain and is in charge of what we call executive function, meaning the use of logic, imagination, planning, and control. Our neocortex, in general, is primarily in charge or our conscious thoughts and behavior. When affected by stress, fear, or trauma, the neocortex becomes impaired though. This means that those affected by stress, fear, or trauma may be biologically unable to think rationally, focus attention, or inhibit impulses. During these times, a phenomenon referred to as amygdala hijacking can also occur, in which our amygdala, the center of fear within the limbic system, takes over the neocortex and promotes acting out of fear.

So far we’ve talked about the stress response system, the basic regions of the brain and their primary functions, and how trauma can impact processes throughout our brain and body. One thing that many people are curious about whether trauma impacts memory, and if so, how, so I wanted to touch on that as well. In short, yes, trauma can and does have an effect on memory, through multiple facets including formation, storage, and recall. Typically, memories are formed and stored in an organized way, follow a sequential pattern, are easy to recall when desired, and we generally have control over the recall of memories. However, trauma memories are characteristically different from typical memories, and this impacts how survivors process their trauma during and after its occurrence. Generally, trauma memories are not well organized and are not sequential in nature. Instead, they’re often fragmented and don’t necessarily follow a logical timeline. We also have less control over the recall of trauma memories. Instead of us choosing when to recall a memory, situational factors may trigger the recall of a trauma memory when the survivor does not want to recall the trauma. Imagine how frustrating and difficult this may be. Something challenging happened to you, and even if you normally have an exceptional memory, you may not be able to remember your trauma in the same way you typically can remember other events. Also, even though you may not want to, you could be forced to think about the trauma when you’re triggered by numerous situational factors including smells, similar environments, the texture of a chair, or the particular type of lighting in a room, among other things. 

Now, it’s not really important to me whether or not you remember all of the details of what we’ve discussed today. If you find the details interesting, I’d highly encourage you to learn more in the links provided on this post. What I really want you to take away though is, there are reasons why trauma survivors act the way they do. I like to think of humans as systems. When one part of the system is off, even just slightly, this can have a massively impactful cascading effect across the whole system’s functioning. Though you may not always understand where a behavior is coming from, I hope that this understanding of the meaning within all of us, within and across every aspect of our being, will encourage you to have compassion and empathy for trauma survivors.


Written content and video for this topic within the Prevention at Home series provided by YWCA Spokane staff member, Mia Morton.


Continue Learning with Prevention at Home!

Explore more topics on your journey empowering yourself and those around you by visiting the following blog posts and watching the other videos in our prevention at home series.

  1. Services at YWCA Spokane
  2. What is Intimate Partner Domestic Violence
  3. Red Flags and the Relationship Spectrum
  4. Respect, Boundaries, and Consent
  5. Teen Domestic Violence
  6. Why Do They Stay or Go Back
  7. Trauma and the Brain
  8. Safety Planning
  9. Self Care
  10. Self Regulation
  11. How to Help a Friend

External Resources for Continuing Education

YWCA Spokane staff members have collected the following external links for you to further your education.

Resources specifically related to trauma and the brain


YWCA SPOKANE IS HERE FOR YOU

If you or someone you know is impacted by intimate partner domestic violence, know that confidential advocates are always available through our 24hr helpline services by calling 509-326-2255, emailing help@ywcaspokane.org, or texting 509-220-3725. 

To learn more about accessing additional services through YWCA Spokane during the COVID-19 pandemic, please visit ywcaspokane.org/services.

By: Mia Morton

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