Ever get that creepy feeling when you’re in a dark room by yourself, and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up? Or how about that time when you broke up with your sweetheart back in high school and your heart fell to the floor? Or that feeling of elation and lightness while out spending quality time with your friends or loved ones?
In the last article, we discussed how there are three levels of thought in the brain: the reptilian, the mammalian, and the human. But it’s much more than just how thoughts are processed - it’s how our physical reactions happen in the first place. And it’s indelibly tied to our ability to function as part of a society.
You see, signals from your brain are sent to various areas in your body as physical manifestations of your emotional state. Consider this: when you get angry, your face is liable to turn red, and you may even snarl. That’s your mammalian brain signaling to yourself - and to the world - your emotional and mental state. People around you will likely steer clear, calm you down, or even join you, depending on their mental state as well.
Trauma is an extension of that behavior, except on a much grander, more debilitating scale. When an extreme experience happens to you, you automatically bypass the human brain and process everything through your mammalian brain. Your mind and body prepares itself to take actions for self-preservation; fight or flight. In order for you to survive, your mind and body give precedence to your mammalian brain’s ability to act on your behalf, skipping over the human brain.
For instance, if something explodes near you, you’ll likely feel that rush of blood to your brain, and you’ll even flinch. Moments later, you’ll find yourself running away faster than you ever have in your life. Your mind ends up processing the information of what really happened long after the danger has passed.
However, trauma can develop when you’re in that fight or flight mode, but you’re completely unable to do either. Your brain reverts to the reptilian response: absolute preservation.
Evidence suggests that when your trauma is triggered long after the experience, your mind believes it is happening again in the present. You may even hallucinate, which truly brings the event front-and-center in regards to your psyche. Since you’re unable to escape your own flashback, your mind shuts down in self-defense, and the body follows suit right after.
So then, what can be done to help fix the trauma that has taken over your life? For that, we need to go back to how those three brains developed in the first place. Our brains evolved to the state its in now as both the cause and the result of our social success. We have gotten as far as we have due to our ability to think and act beyond our instincts. More than that, it allows us to communicate with each other on a level deeper than developed languages. We have the ability to make intuitive sense of what others are emoting around us, from gestures to expressions and beyond. Our empathy often reacts to what others are feeling: if they’re excited, you’re liable to get excited as well. It’s a deeply embedded social trait that enriches our lives for the better.
When trauma takes over your mind and body, that connection gets severed from everyone else. And that connection is the crucial element. Trauma keeps you in a vicious cycle of self-preservation and shutdown, which overrides your ability to communicate with those around you effectively. Unfortunately, that same connection is what’s needed to overcome trauma.
When confronted with extreme situations, we often shift into three specific phases. Let’s assume that you’re caught in an earthquake and are stuck under the rubble of your home. In the first phase, you’ll typically call out for help; a product of your human brain. When no-one comes, you’ll enter the second phase as dictated by your mammalian brain: fight or flight. There, your body goes into physical overdrive, and you’ll likely attempt to dig your own way out, no matter the cost. However, when no-one can help you, and you’re unable to help yourself, your mind and body revert to the reptilian brain and go into the ultimate self-preservation mode: shutdown.
Healing trauma means restoring your faith in yourself and in those around you, ultimately making those connections stronger than they were before.
Medication by itself won’t do it. And in fact, therapy by itself won’t do it either. It takes a concerted effort of medication, professional therapy, and a strong social circle to truly overcome your trauma. It’s why therapy dogs exist - it’s a way for people suffering trauma to heal. Simply having a pet reawakens pathways in your brain to allow for those crucial social connections to emerge.
The medication eases your symptoms, of course, which makes your day to day manageable. And the talk therapy you undergo helps you make sense of it while reactivating that critical communication aspect of your mind. Those combined will get you back on the right track; just keep in mind that healing isn’t instantaneous. It will take years of hard work and tons of love from your friends and family, but it will be worth it.