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Trauma and the Brain: Find Meaning in the Mess

If someone asked you to picture a survivor; who would it be? Pi and his Bengal tiger, Richard Parker? They remained near death and adrift at sea for 227 days after their shipwreck, fishing together to fight off starvation. Your next-door neighbor? She was diagnosed with breast cancer and given less than a year to live. However, that was two years ago, and after her double mastectomy, she is now in total remission. What about your best friend’s daughter? She came home from college halfway through last semester with no explanation. She frequently has rage episodes and can snap in an instant. You’ve seen it happen. She refuses to leave her room during the day and stays out all night. She blows through all the rules her parents try to set. She even got into a physical scuffle with her father last week when he tried to take the car keys. Your best friend called you yesterday hysterical, saying her daughter told her in a rare, vulnerable moment that she was sexually assaulted at college and is now using heroin. Would you call her daughter a survivor? Would you call her daughter a survivor if she wasn’t using drugs? Would you call her daughter a junkie? A shift happens that causes compassion to harden into judgement. Her daughter survived a violent attack that claims an average of 3 female lives per day  , but because drugs are now a part of the story, why does that give us pause? The undeniable stigma that accompanies addicts automatically reframes our focus on the substance abuse as the problem, and sexual assault as the consequence. “She was using heroin! What did she think would happen?” Why do we automatically assume drug use precedes traumatic events? Even if it doesn’t, why does drug use denote “deserving” trauma, and not help? Trauma is invisible, yet messy. It is unpredictable, and widely less understood. It slithers between synapses, paralyzing the frontal lobes of the brain. It holds memories hostage. Fear causes reactions go from rational to primal. Suddenly the mind is no longer a safe place to be. The chaos builds until people feel like there are only two choices: 1) Make it stop 2) Make it stop permanently. Your best friend says she is desperate to get her daughter help, but doesn’t understand any of this? How did she go from honor role to heroin? Anything we don’t understand is scary, and getting angry is a lot easier than admitting our fear. We can be afraid. We can be angry. We also need to be informed. Trauma-Informed. Understanding Trauma in the Brain and Why They’re Not “Junkies” Drugs are easier to blame than trauma. Drugs are tangible. If you haven’t come across any in person, you’ve probably seen your favorite sitcom character battle them, read a news story that featured them, or attended the funeral of someone who died from them, whether you knew it or not. They are powerful enough to be responsible for an epidemic and have had a war declared upon them by The United States of America- of course you blame drugs. However, even after the substance abuse is either confessed or discovered, people, like your best friend, are still left wanting. In face of everything pointing to drugs as the problem, families and friends of the addict are still plagued with one question: why?Why did she use in the first place?” Let’s take a look at the brain. Have you ever burned yourself? Have you ever burned yourself so badly that you moved your body part before the pain even set in? Our body’s number one instinct is survival, and we are hard wired towards it. For example, when your hand touched that iron you swore was off, your brain received two messages: 1) danger 2) pain. Again, with the goal being survival, your brain is going to tell your hand to move before it gives you a reason as to why. The Limbic System is the part of our brain that regulates our emotions and houses our memories. The amygdala is to our brain what an alarm system is to our house. It is on alert 24/7, even when we are sleeping. Our amygdala is always processing information relayed from our senses to our brain. It asks the questions, “Is this dangerous?” and “have we been in this situation before?” The hippocampus is able to give the amygdala the answers to those questions because it is responsible for memory function. It aids us in discerning which memories are from the past and which ones are present. The hippocampus also uses present experiences to create new memories that will be stored and one day be used to answer the amygdala’s constant questioning. The amygdala’s distress signal activates the sympathetic nerve system and causes the stress hormones epinephrine and cortisol to be released into the blood stream.. The first round is epinephrine (adrenaline). It courses through the veins causing physiological changes. We start breathing faster so our lungs can take in more oxygen. The extra oxygen in our brain heightens and sharpens our senses, and signals stored nutrients to be released into our blood stream, supplying extra energy to our bodies. This is what explains the sudden capability of a parent to flip over a car to save their child. If danger is still perceived, cortisol is released to keep the body on high alert. The cortisol helps us decide whether taking on the threat or running away from it is the best chance for our survival. This is called “fight, flight, or freeze” response. When the amygdala sends distress, the frontal lobes of our brain wake up to weigh in on the conversation. Our frontal lobes are responsible for problem solving, judgement, impulse control, and social behavior to name a few. It’s like the amygdala, hippocampus, and stress hormones are friends jumping into a car for a spontaneous road trip, and the frontal lobes are the parents asking about gas money and if they need an oil change. An example of how this system processes information using the hot iron example. You’re doing laundry, and bump into your ironing table, causing the iron to fall towards your arm.

  • The amygdala receives information from the senses about the iron falling.
    • It asks the hippocampus, “ is this dangerous?” “have we been in this situation before?”
  • The hippocampus retrieves archived memories of the last time your burned yourself.
    • They contain physical pain, blisters, fear, and anger associated with the iron.
  • The message, “FLIGHT” is sent via stress hormones through your bloodstream.
  • You jump out of the way as the steaming iron falls to the ground.
  • The frontal lobes are left little to no time to weigh in.
  • When the danger has passed the amygdala and hippocampus code new memory about how when they moved out of the way, the iron did not hurt this time.

The Limbic System responds so rapidly, that often this process is already  underway before the brain’s visual centers can even process what is happening. This explains the “move first, feel the burn after” response. Trauma Response This is an incredibly efficient system. Your brain accurately predicted potential danger, and caused your body to respond accordingly. Does the brain always perceive potential danger accurately? Are we more like Superman or The Hulk? Think about it. If we respond that way to a potential burn, how do we respond in a situation that is similar to a life threatening one we previously survived? An example could be the physical scuffle your best friend’s husband and daughter got into last week over car keys. Her daughter was in the kitchen, getting ready to take the car out late at night yet again. After their repeated requests to know where she was going and whom she was meeting with were met with silence, they told her she was not allowed to leave or use the car. She refuses to turn the keys over, and makes a beeline for the door. Her father hurries after her and grabs her arm in an attempt to stop her.

  • The amygdala receives information from the senses about a male physically approaching quickly and aggressively.
    • It asks the hippocampus, “ is this dangerous?” “have we been in this situation before?”
  • The hippocampus retrieves archived memories of the last time she was approached quickly and aggressively by a male.
    • They contain physical pain, terror, and danger
  • The message, “FIGHT” is sent via stress hormones released into her bloodstream.
  • When her father attempts to stop her, she pushes him with such force, he falls to the ground.
  • The frontal lobes are desperately trying to communicate that this is her father. He has never caused physical harm, and she is not about to be sexually assaulted.
    • They are drowned out because all the blood serving the emotional parts of the brain by carrying the cortisol.
  • The amygdala and hippocampus code new memory about how when they fought back, she was not sexually assaulted.

Dr. Charles R. Figley in his book, Trauma and Its Wake, defines trauma as “an emotional state of discomfort and stress resulting from memories of an extraordinary, catastrophic experience which shattered the survivor’s sense of invulnerability to harm.” In layman’s terms: trauma is a state of being, a response rather than a cause. When your best friend’s daughter was assaulted, it created a “new normal” in her brain. Our brains don’t record memories like movies. They are recorded as flashes and sensations experienced by our senses. So even though her father had no intention of sexually assaulting his daughter, because her brain perceived aggression, a man, hostility, unwelcome physical touch; it warranted her fight reaction. Her memories of the assault are now a template used to determine response.

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