TRAUMA & THE BRAIN

Trauma and the brain are extremely complex, but here’s a simplified-(ish) overview which I hope can help!

The Brain & Trauma

There are three parts of the brain which are the most affected by trauma, and these are: the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex.

The amygdala is located in the limbic system part of our brain. It deals with our survival instincts and gathers information to determine threats; it’s what drives our “fight or flight” response. It’s responsible for attaching emotional significance to memories and involved in memory consolidation, whereby it transfers new learnings into our long term memory.

 

The hippocampus is also part of the limbic system and mostly responsible for the storing and retrieving of memories. In essence, it “date stamps” our experiences and “files them away” correctly, so that we are able to differentiate between the past and present. When we experience trauma however, our brain becomes overwhelmed and memories can become “stuck” in the amygdala. As a result, they may not be passed onto the hippocampus or “date stamped”, meaning that memories can remain extremely vivid in the mind of survivors, who may experience the same levels of distress as if the trauma was happening in the present moment - even if the trauma happened many years ago.

 

The prefrontal cortex is responsible for many things and is known as the “rational” part of the brain which deals with rational thinking, reasoning and logic. It also regulates emotions and this can be affected or overridden by trauma. Trauma could in fact be described as an imbalance between the prefrontal cortex, whereby it becomes hypoactive (i.e. not very active or rational and a decreased ability to regulate emotions) and the amygdala, whereby it becomes hyperactive (i.e. heightened fear response).

 

So how exactly does Trauma impact our brain?

When our fight or flight response is activated, adrenaline floods the body and the parts of the brain which are not immediately needed for survival can go offline. The hippocampus’s job is to file away memories, however, in times of threat it stops filing them away. Instead, it starts to pump cortisol which prevents us from feeling pain (meaning that we can then focus on survival - basically, it’s our instinctive safety mechanism and our bodies way of protecting us). Memories can then become imprinted in the amygdala and "stuck" as sensory fragments (i.e. sights, sounds, smells, touch, sensations, emotions) associated with the trauma. Because the trauma and any fragments haven’t been filed away correctly or “date stamped”, the trauma remains stuck in the present moment and our brain can remain “on guard”, scanning for new threats. However - even though this is our brain’s way of protecting us, it also means we can live in a state of hypervigilance, aswell as experience flashbacks or nightmares. In addition, it also means that triggers (i.e. anything that reminds us of the trauma, consciously or unconsciously, such as a certain smell) can then set off our fight or flight response, interpreting them as a perceived threat in the present moment.

Talk Therapy vs Trauma Therapy such as EMDR

In talk therapy, we can become distressed when recalling traumatic events and our amygdala can become aroused. In addition, the part of our brain that deals with rational thinking (i.e. the pre-frontal cortex) can become “hijacked” and go offline. In this state of distress, we may not be able to rationalise, hear words or make sense of our experiences. This also means that whilst we may feel validated or relieved to have shared our experiences with our therapist, the fragments of trauma that have been left imprinted into our amygdala still remain there - “stuck” and unprocessed. As a result, we may even feel retraumatized and become stuck in a loop - talking and going over our trauma time and time again. This means we may continue to feel triggered and experience distress or emotional pain as if our trauma was happening in the present moment, unable to “move on” from the past. Talk therapy certainly has its place, even alongside Trauma Therapy for some people; indeed there can be great healing in sharing our story and having our pain validated, especially if we have felt invalidated or have remained silent about our distress for many years. However, talk therapy alone wouldn't be recommended for processing and healing from trauma.

When we engage in trauma therapy such as EMDR however, bilateral stimulation (i.e. eye movements or alternate tapping movements) engages both hemispheres of the brain, and the trauma and fragments of trauma become “unstuck” from the amygdala, making their way to the hippocampus, where they are then correctly processed, filed away and date stamped. This means that after processing, the trauma will feel more “distant” and in the past, rather than causing you distress in the present moment. During the process, you may also experience insight and new information to help integrate your trauma and make some meaning from your experiences.