Imagine your life is like a finished puzzle. It creates a whole picture where all the little pieces fit together right where they should. Imagine lightly holding this complete puzzle in your arms.
Now imagine that all the sudden something happens to you and you drop the puzzle on the ground. You frantically try to pick up the pieces and put them back together. But they don’t seem to fit right. You don’t remember what it looked like before. You only have so many pieces of the puzzle and you can’t quite force them together.
That is trauma.
This phenomenon is best explained with geeking out, so get your lab coats on:
Let’s talk about four systems that play the largest role in trauma.
We are going to dive right into the limbic system of our brains, what some people may call the “reptilian brain”. We refer to this area of the brain as reptilian because it’s most important function, is survival. All species have a limbic system, but humans evolved a more sophisticated cortex over this area which gives us the ability to perform more sophisticated functions.
Within the limbic system we start by highlighting the Thalamus. This area can be likened to a Grand Central Station. It is the center relay station for incoming and outgoing messages from the brain to the body, and vice versa.
The thalamus is an important part of emotion regulation as it gathers data from the external world from the 5 senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell). All of this data converges into the thalamus and it processes it and forwards information. Additionally, it monitors data from within, such as heart rate, respiratory rate, body temperature, digestion, etc. Now, like the grand central station, the thalamus’ role is to send and receive information. The thalamus sends information two different directions: and this part is very important when considering the impact of trauma.
Path one (the quicker path): Data gathered from the thalamus sends information right next store to the amygdala, which has a function that’s sole purpose is to react to real or perceived (now this is important) threats. The amygdala, is just like a fire alarm in your home. Its job is to scan 24/7, and when it detects a threat, real or imagined, it rings. In the event the fire alarm detects a threat, it sends a message to the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). We can call the SNS a Soldier, as its job is to either fight back, take cover, or freeze. This is the body’s “fight or flight” mechanism, which is crucial to survival.
Think about this, if our ancestors had a faulty amygdala, would our species have survived? If the brain wasn’t scanning for threats 100% of the time, humans probably would’ve been eaten by tigers quickly. It’s important to realize that this is a survival mechanism, not a reality mechanism.
The second path (slower path) that Thalamus sends messages to is the prefrontal cortex, which is like a manager. Try to move your eyes towards the middle of your eyebrows, and that’s where you’ll find your prefrontal cortex. The function of this part of the brain is to interpret information received from the thalamus and make rational and sound decisions. It taps into other parts of the brain to interpret if the threat is legitimate. Problem is, the prefrontal cortex receives information a few microseconds later than the amygdala (fire alarm). This is why we feel physically feel stressed before actually knowing why.
Now, let’s look at the traumatized brain now that we have a basic understanding of the stress response system. The grand central station (thalamus) is constantly feeding information to the overactive fire alarm (amygdala) which is firing off over and over again, sending messages to the Soldier (Sympathetic Nervous System) to fight or run! So, what does this look like outside of the brain and in the real world?
• Startle responses
• Substance use
Now, we talked about how the fire alarm (amygdala) is designed to react to real or imagined threats. When someone experiences real threats (rape, encounter with death, abuse, traumatic relationships, etc.) fragments of the memory are seared order to keep the human safe. After the real trauma, it constantly scans for something that could resemble the experience (stimulus). If someone perceives a threat, it fires off the amygdala, and causes the mind and body to react.
Now, I invite you to reflect on your life or someone close to you. Do you, or someone you know react to things that seem seemingly small to you?
Do you wonder why a fire work causes the Veteran to duck and cover?
Do you wonder why an argument causes someone to tremble in place?
Do you wonder why someone when someone is offered love and affection, they become depressed and push them away?
Do you wonder why someone HAS to use a drug or drink to quiet their calm down?
The amygdala doesn’t have a consciousness. It doesn’t think. It reacts first and always will because survival is the brain’s most vital function.
Trauma can be healed. But it requires safety, patience, and vulnerability.
By activating parts of the brain that quiet the amygdala, people create new neuropathways, so that they aren’t always reacting to a perceived threat.
This can be perfumed by means of meditation, yoga, dialogue with a trusted person, petting a dog, going on a walk, etc.
Ultimately, the goals of trauma work are to put the pieces back together, which ultimately exposes the trauma they so fear. However, with safety and skills, traumatized people can and do recover.
If you have any questions about how to move forward from trauma, or know someone that needs assistance, you can reply to this message and I’d be happy to point you in the right direction. Because I recover every day from the trauma that occurred in my life.
If you are missing pieces to the puzzle you dropped, you can create a new picture with new found pieces.