Hello, I’m back! Toasted muffins, strong coffee, and a cuddle with my hubby revived me.
So…on with the post. Prepare to be educated about trauma and the brain part deux….
I am sat with a diagram that scares me. As I mentioned in my previouspost, the content comes from Carolyn @ pods which my CPN gave me from a training course she attended for professionals working with survivors of trauma. I am going to attempt to describe what I see in pictures and translate it into words. Gulp. So, it starts like this…Carolyn Spring helpfully names the different parts of the brain using real words that help explain their function.
First, when trauma happens/or a trigger comes from the environment which reminds you of that traumatic memory…the AMGDALA comes online (part of the back brain, thw emotional brain). She calls this the “SMOKE ALARM” The smoke alarm is oversensitive after trauma. It is highly sensitive, generalises, jumps to conclusions, and acts without thinking. The smoke alarm decides “is this a threat?”..if it concludes (in the tiniest unit of a split second) that there IS a threat, it sounds the alarm, activating the autonomic nervous system. Your brain goes on AMBER ALERT and you are mobilised for action- fight or flight. This creates an internal feedback loop (you are panicking because you are panicking). Are you with me so far?
Then the threat is either thwarted or not thwarted. If the threat IShwarted the brain interprets this as an ‘act of triumph’, then comes recovery, and integration, which is where you make meaning from the experience, consolidate memory and re-regulate the nervous system which only seconds ago had gone absolutely BONKERS (in summer language). If the threat is not thwarted the brain escalates the move from amber to RED ALERT. You are immobilised. You FREEZE. You feel powerless because your brain/body is faced with inescapable shock (in other words TRAUMA). TThis leads to disorganisation where the defensive system breaks down, nothing works, and PTSD/dissociation occurs. (dissociation is when you mentally escape an unescapable situation by mentally going somewhere else, or even having the sensation of floating outside the body so it is not you who is suffering the trauma). Dissociation exists on a spectrum from mild to severe. Severe prolonged trauma can manifest as DID (dissociative identity disorder) where different personalities/alters appear to protect our main identity by splintering off into several presentations of people. That is dissociation at it’s most severe, but people with borderline/emotionally unstable personality disorder like me also tend to dissociate enough, with alterations to identity, just not as pronounced as DID. But that is just labels anyway so I don’t need to dwell on that…Anyway, on with the neurological show.
I will now describe the other two parts of the diagram.
If the amygdala (THE SMOKE ALARM) in the emotional back brain decides whatever is going on in the environment is NOT threatening, this info is sent to the front brain (the rational part) This is described by Carolyn Spring as THE WATCH TOWER. Rather than acting then thinking as the emotional brain does, the watch tower THINKS THEN ACTS. It checks the experience against previous data (memory) to consider it’s course of action. Get it? Hope so.
Finally, there is one part of the brain I haven’t yet mentioned. It’s THE COOK, which is kind of like the gatekeeper which blends incoming information together to create a fuller understanding. The cook is activated by TRAUMA/ POWERLESSNESS/SHOCK/NEUROLOGICAL DISORGANISATION/DISSOCIATION. Disorganisation/dissociative states direct the gatekeeper to sift for trauma-related clues and sensitise the smoke alarm to sound earlier. When that process is activated the brain either takes ‘the high road’ (which is slow) or ‘the low road’ (which is fast). The high road activates the watch tower, and the low road (the faster automatic process) activates the smoke alarm.
Fuck me, it’s complicated!
Finally, at this point the watchtower (the clever thinking bit) asks itself “is this a threat”. If the answer is YES, the whole process starts again, which is obviously CRAP. If the answer is NO, we can all breathe a sigh of relief and move from red alert, to amber to green. We are back in our window of tolerance YAY! So our brain directs the body to rest and digest, and eat to replenish our energy.
Life is the GREEN ZONE is lush. Unfortunately trauma survivors don’t spend much of their life in the green zone. Our emotional/reptilian brains are overactive, and the threat pathways in the brain that loop round as I’ve described are far more comfortable than the NO THREAT pathways. PTSD dissociative survivors spend much of their time in the AMBER and RED ALERT feedback loops, which quite frankly, talking as someone who has PTSD is SHIT.
When people who are not trauma survivors say to us, “WHY CAN’T YOU JUST LEAVE WHAT HAPPENED IN THE PAST” show them this post!!!!!
It is not us, it is OUR BRAINS. All this complicated patterns of brain activity and activation loops round in some time frame so miniscule I can’t even quote a figure, well below a second.
Imagine living with all that brain activity almost ALL OF THE TIME!
That is why people with PTSD are pretty much always depressed. If you had all this going on all day and into the night affecting your sleep, you would get depressed.
I try and be a positive person, but I live EVERY DAY with trauma. We cannot switch our trauma off cause we’re tired. It just happens, and to firefight a brain which is constantly on high alert is bound to promote extreme anxiety, exhaustion and depression.
Give us a break when you dish out those well meaning platitudes about how we “SHOULDN’T DWELL IN THE PAST”. We are not meaning to!!!!
If we are triggered we are triggered. THERE IS NO SHAME IN BEING TRIGGERED AND HAVING FLASHBACKS. Yes it can be embarrassing when it happens in a public place but fuck all the people who watch and stare. They haven’t been through what you’ve been through!
Try ten minutes in my head with a traumatised brain like mine. You would want to escape from it as soon as possible. Non-PTSD survivors have NO CLUE what goes on in the brain.
So quit with the victim shaming for us not being able to “get over” our traumas at a speed of your convenience.
Just had to have a rant about that as I’m sick to the back teeth of telling me I should have “moved on” from the severe childhood trauma which I endured from birth to fifteen. Twats.
Finally though, I must end on an uplifting note…although there is not a huge amount you can do to fight against the neurological processes that I’ve outlined, the best we can do as trauma survivors is to learn to ‘ground ourselves’. You may have been advised by a therapist to ground yourself, mid flashback, and wanted to punch them in frustration (or is that only me?!) … anyway this is the brainy neuroscience explanation for why grounding is recommended in situations where your PTSD is activated. Carolyn Springs three strategies for grounding are
GET MYSELF THINKING, GET MYSELF NOTICING, AND GET MYSELF CONNECTED.
First, ‘get myself thinking’ involves doing puzzles, reading, working etc, things that activate the front left brain.
Second, ‘get myself noticing’ means turning your attention inward and being curious, doing things such as mindfulness meditations, which activates the front middle brain.
Finally, ‘getting myself connected’ involves connection with someone else you trust, a significant attachment figure like a therapist, partner or close friend. This activates the front right brain.
Doing any of the three or a combination of any of them is the best thing you can do to help yourself when your trauma symptoms are at their worst, as they are the best way to return to the GREEN ZONE or WINDOW OF TOLERANCE, and when you’ve got there, stay there!
Next time you’re triggered. Try it! Give it a go, and feed back to me if it works 🙂
Sending my best wishes to all survivors of trauma who have unusually wired brains such as I. My heart is with you xxxxx
Message to society**
Don’t blame and shame the victim for being emotionally reactive. Blame the perpetrator (if there is one, in cases of assault or abuse). Blame the brain. Just never blame the badass survivor who is one brave mother fucker for surviving what they went through.