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.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “at least it isn’t brain surgery” multiple times in your life. It signifies our general understanding that the human brain is one of the most complex organs in the body, and possibly also the least understood. While this is true to some degree, there have been multiple studies that delve deeply in the inner workings of our physical minds.
In the 80s, magnetic resonance imaging was invented, which allowed clearer studies of the brain through a process known as neuroimaging. In short, these MRI scans combined with other techniques and neurological knowledge allow a more in-depth study of how the brain functions.
Case in point: the amygdala reacts immediately to stressful situations, whereupon other parts of the brain will determine how to respond. For example: if you hear a loud bang, your amygdala will send a system-wide alert to the rest of your brain. From there, the separate regions will make judgement calls as how to best respond - and if it’s actually an emergency worth responding to. It does you no good to freak out and run away if the source of that loud bang was just something that fell from the counter.
It was found that victims of severe trauma have a bit of a short-circuit in their brains. The amygdala still reacts to dangerous and stressful situations, but the portions of your brain that help determine what is or isn’t dangerous is cut off. It’s as though your mind is frozen in such a way that the alert is rampaging through your system, but has no idea how to react.
Another interesting thing to note is that there’s a region in your brain called Broca’s area. It is, in essence, your speech center. It allows your ability to communicate with everyone around you using language in any form. Trauma shuts it down, meaning that those who suffer from trauma are completely unable to articulate what they’re experiencing.
There’s also a section in your brain called Brodmann’s area 19. The first time you see something, it goes through here first before being passed on to other regions in the brain. It’s only activated when something is first experienced. Most interestingly, this area in trauma patients become extremely active when they’re reliving their traumatic experience. Basically, they “see” their traumatic experiences as though they are happening in the present, regardless of how long ago the event actually happened.
You’ve likely heard of the three key brain ‘types’: the reptilian brain, the mammalian brain, and the primate brain. While a bit generalized, each of these types form the basis for the next. The reptilian brain is the foundation for the mammalian, and the mammalian is the foundation for the primate.
The reptilian brain governs all of your basic and necessary functions: breathing, heart rate, balance, and so on. The mammalian brain handles emotional input and response, stores emotional memory, and makes value judgements on your day to day life. The amygdala is a component of your mammalian brain. Finally, there’s the primate, or human, brain. It deals with your current consciousness - such as your ability to read this very article and process it. It also deals with communication, so Broca’s area sits in here. It also deals with your ability to imagine and think critically.
As humans, we developed these three levels in order to deal with our survival as a species, meaning that our brains are able to discern dangerous situations and automatically create an appropriate response up and down these three brain levels. In more extreme situations, your mind and body default into a fight or flight mode, which is when your mammalian brain sends out an alert to the rest of your brain, warning it of danger. So the mammalian brain, thanks to the alerts sent out by the amygdala, creates all manner of hormones to help produce the fight-or-flight response in your body. In the last article, cortisol was mentioned to be a stress hormone, but it isn’t the only one. Others include adrenaline, estrogen, testosterone, dopamine, and serotonin among others.
With these hormones flooding your mind and body, your human brain is able to instantaneously make the appropriate judgement call to leap into action if need be. It typically makes the ultimate decision as to what to do, by using past experience as well as stimuli from your environment. An increase in adrenaline, for example, allows you to run faster or fight harder if the situation demands it. It’s necessary for your individual survival.
Let’s say you’re in a movie theatre, watching the latest exciting superhero movie. There’s all sorts of action, with explosions, people getting hurt, and buildings collapsing. But your body doesn’t run away from this (or get into a fight), despite the highly stressful situation it’s in. This is your mammalian brain sending the signals, and your human brain telling the rest of your body that there’s nothing to fear; everything is fine.
What trauma does is sever this connection with your human brain.
Now imagine you’re in that theatre and you’re watching your favorite superhero movie. Only this time, when the explosions and fire happens, your mind short-circuits. It doesn’t know that what you’re experiencing isn’t dangerous. Your body goes into fight or flight and you take off running as fast as humanly possible, obviously a less-than-logical response.
Trauma victims are stuck in this perpetual mindset of ultimate survival and fight or flight, despite the danger having passed a long time ago. Because trauma victims aren’t able to regulate their mammalian brain with their human brain, those stress hormones keep getting sent even if there’s no need to.
As mentioned previously, you can use medication to control your body’s response to the increased levels of stress hormones. But that doesn’t stop the mind from actually sending more and more of them out. Therapy is absolutely necessary in fixing this short-circuit in the brain. They say balance is the key to life, love, and happiness. And this means that balance within yourself makes all the difference in the world.
Trauma is a result of being so deeply harmed that it’s like you’re in a pit covered in spikes. Moving around in the pit hurts and trying to get out of the pit hurts, so your mind and body make the decision to simply stay put among the spikes until your last dying day. You shouldn't live like that. No-one should. But there’s no easy way to overcome your trauma. It takes time, effort, patience, and the willingness to face the things that you fear the most in order to start healing. Those pit spikes are going hurt a hell of a lot, but once you’re out, you won’t have any spikes to deal with ever again.
Trauma is more than that one terrible event that shocked you to your core, and it’s more than your fear and helplessness crippling you. There’s the incredible anxiety and depression, the sudden bursts of anger and irritability, there’s being disconnected and withdrawing from everyone around you. There’s even feelings of guilt and you might even blame yourself for the events that traumatized you. You could even be prone to hallucinations, which can be vivid enough that you’ll relive the traumatic experience through them. And that’s just the psychological problems. On the physical side of things, you might be suffering from insomnia. And on those rare occasions you get some sleep, you get plagued by nightmares. You’re likely also tired and fatigued most of the time. You’re always on edge, and your muscles are constantly tense. Long story short: post-traumatic stress disorder does a serious number on you mentally and physically.
Your body is strained at a level beyond fight or flight, and both your mind and body can’t keep up.
Cortisol is the hormone your body creates for a wide variety of reasons, but when it comes to trauma, cortisol is the one hormone that deeply imprints the traumatic event into your memory. Though studies are mixed - some who suffer from ptsd show an overabundance, while others show a clear lack. The one thing that links them is that everyone who suffers a deeply traumatic event suffers from abnormal levels of cortisol. In other words, your mind is glitching out, and your body doesn’t know what do about it.
While it may be easy enough to get some pills to help chemically regulate your hormones, just know that it won’t ever be enough to help you deal with your trauma. There are lots of discussions on how to curtail traumatic symptoms, but sadly not enough on listening to the patient and understanding the root cause. Modern medicine, psychiatry included, has become about fixing symptoms rather than curing ailments, and that fixation becomes more and more evident as each day passes. Every year there are better and better drugs being made that treat things like depression or mood swings or hallucinations - which is great when you just want to get your day going. But they don’t treat the reason why you have depression or mood swings in the first place. We love to use this system of chemically complex bandaids, but absolutely neglect to repair and heal the wound underneath. The drugs help you cope with your nightmares, but if you ever have to stop taking the drugs, those nightmares are coming back no matter what. It’s even worse for trauma, because a whole cocktail of pills will help you deal with all of the symptoms that trauma presents, but none actually do the hard work of healing you fully. If you take off the bandaid, all you’re going to find is a festering wound. That doesn’t do you, or the people you love, any good.
So what’s the solution? You could get a prescription and at least lead a decently normal life. Except you’ll essentially be giving up control of your mind, body, and hard earned cash to some chemical concoction. That’s not really a solution. It’s kind of like laminated wood - chopped up wood inside, plastic fake wood outside. Besides, taking a multitude of pills on a daily basis until the end of time doesn’t sound very appealing. Or safe.
But this is why trauma therapy exists. Treating trauma takes a lot of hard work, and it’ll never be instant. You’ll take time to heal, perhaps a long time. But it won’t be forever. And you can still take the meds if you want, so that you can have a regular day to day life while you’re treating and healing yourself through therapy. You can ease off the chemicals once you’re strong enough to handle your traumatic memories. But for the most part, it’s all about working through your pain; remembering and processing your thoughts and emotions properly. And it’s a bit like going to the gym regularly - in order for your body to get stronger, you have to keep doing those reps. Same thing with treating trauma. The idea is to take therapy to cure what's troubling you, and potentially taking medicine to help. Sure, it’ll definitely take time. But healing a broken bone takes a long time to properly heal, so why would treating a psychological wound be any different? Sadly, nowadays, people skip the therapy, opting to instead simply take the medicine. Those won't ever cure you by themselves; they’ll only make you chemically dependent and add to your troubles.
Realizing the full extent of your trauma and coming to terms with what’s troubling you takes serious effort. And you can’t do it alone - you need guidance from a professional therapist along with all the love and affection that your family and friends can give. You have to be more aware of what’s going on with you as well. For example: ask yourself if what’s happening around you is triggering your trauma. It could be as simple as someone asking you to do something mundane, or it could be a loud, surprising sound. But paying attention to these things and responding appropriately slowly trains your mind and body to separate the non-traumatic things in your life with the really harmful stuff. Of course, it’s more than this. You should have regular talks with your therapist, and you should definitely surround yourself with people who love you. You see, therapy is all about acceptance of the pitfalls in life, and not some weird voodoo where your brain gets mysteriously rewired. It’s about truly mindful healing, and you should start today.