This post is EDUCATIONAL so I hope you will learn something, and that if you are someone trying to get to grips with past trauma you have gone through, that it will also help normalise what is going on with you on a brain level. I was motivated to read this to help a friend who is in the throes of PTSD and giving herself a hard time over how she reacts so strongly to triggers. If you understand the brain science bit a little, it helps the survivor make sense of their automatic responses to things.
The basis of the content comes from handouts I was given by my CPN who attended a conference by Carolyn Spring @ PODS so I cannot take credit for everything in this post, but I’ve tried to simplify it all, and add my own spin to the content. As they say in X factor “I made it my own” haha. This is quite ambitious to cover it all in one post, but I’ll try. If it doesn’t make sense, let me know and I can write a further post for clarification.
First things first, what is trauma? To an extent, what we think of as trauma varies subjectively from person to person, and what is extremely traumatising to one person may have lesser effects on someone else, due to temperamental differences which we are born with. ie. We all differ in our neuronal circuitry (the squiggly bits inside your brain that link together and send messages between the different parts of the brain.) So some people are more neurologically wired for stronger emotional reactivity (and in turn reactivity to traumatic events) originating from what is known as ‘the back brain.’
You probably will have heard of the left and right hemispheres, which have different functions… but have you also heard of the front and back brain?
The front brain is the NEO-CORTEX. The rational bit, which is conscious, cognitive, reflective and empathic…and the back brain (THE LIMBIC SYSTEM) is conversely unconscious and concerned with survival. It’s called the reptilian system as it harks back to the dark ages when we fought sabre tooth tigers, all the while trying not to get eaten. It is primitive and emotional and NOT rational.
So to recap, we have those two main bits of the brain, front (rational) and back (emotional). The emotional bit is linked with expressions of PTSD such as flashbacks, and the rational bit of the brain is what we can employ to ground ourselves in the present when our emotional brains are triggered by a perceived threat in the environment which reminds us of the traumatic incident that happened in the past.
So what happens when trauma occurs in the first place? Answer? SHIT LOADS. Too much to elucidate on here, but in brief…memory systems are hijacked, self-awareness circuits are shut down, attention is funnelled down to threat cues only, and is unable to discriminate what is relevant from irrelevant, the threat smoke alarm sounds, and the amygdala galvanises the threat response, not allowing the neo-cortex to get a look in, time-keeping is ineffective so we struggle to discriminate past from present or imagine a future, integration epically fails between the left and right hemisphere and the front and back brain, so your brain goes all over the shop (in summer language,) and altered states of arousal dominate the body. As a victim you FIGHT, FLIGHT, OR FREEZE in response to the influx of cortisol (the stress hormone)
We also have three systems in the brain.
1.The PARASYMPATHETIC (unmyelinated) system (governs HYPOAROUSAL-the FREEZE response)
2.The PARASYMPATHETIC (myelinated) system (the system that is in charge when all is well as we perceive no threats and we are safely within our WINDOW OF TOLERANCE)
3.And finally, The SYMPATHETIC nervous system (which governs HYPER-AROUSAL- The FIGHT/FLIGHT response)
2 is the bit we want to be in charge. We’re all cool when we’re within our window of tolerance, so on the trauma traffic light that would be a GREEN. 1 and 3 arise when our brain’s perceive trauma. On the trauma traffic light, 1 would be RED and 3 would be AMBER. We don’t want our brain to be in these zones.
This is the basis, creating the background knowledge you need to understand the rest of it…but I think the rest of it needs to come in another chunk as I don’t know about you but I’m getting tired! This brain stuff is bloody complex. I will write more after a chocolate brownie and a cuppa :) xxx