Trauma and the Brain
We’re going to talk about how the brain functions and then specifically how trauma impacts the brain. It can be complex but if you take the time to understand, you will learn that you are not your behavior. Your reactions are not really you. So much of what we feel and do is determined by our brain function and trauma can alter brain functioning.
There are three parts of the brain to look at…
The brainstem is the first part of the brain to develop and it does so from the bottom up. It’s the survival part of the brain, sometimes called the reptilian brain and it’s constantly evaluating situations to see if the body will be safe. It’s in charge of bodily functions, temperature control, regulation, eating, sleeping. It keeps us alive.
The Brainstem governs:
The next part of the brain to develop is the limbic system, also called the mammalian brain. It’s the part of the brain that is unique to mammals. The most important part of the limbic system is the amygdala (pronounced am-ig-dah-la) and that’s what we’re going to focus on here.
The amygdala is that little almond shaped dot. The Greek word ”amygdala” literally means “almond.” It functions as the alarm system for the brain. It’s sometimes referred to as the emotional center or fear center.
Its primary job is to receive all incoming information from our senses — everything we see, hear, touch, smell and taste — and answer one very important question: Is what’s happening a threat? Am I safe? If it detects that a threat is present, it produces fear in us. When this area is activated, we feel afraid, reactive and vigilant.
The amygdala governs:
- Fear based instincts
- Emotional memory
- Defensive behavior
- Stress hormone release
- Long term memory
- Recognition of emotions in others
When a threat is perceived and the amygdala, or fear center, gets switched on — we react in one of three ways: fight, flight or freeze.
The Cortex and the Prefrontal Cortex
The last part of the brain to develop is the cortex and the most important part of the cortex is the prefrontal cortex. For most of us, this part of the brain doesn’t fully develop until we’re in our mid to late twenties .
The prefrontal cortex is the executive functioning part of the brain. This is the part of the brain that makes us human, that differentiates us from animals. This is where learning happens. It’s where we develop wisdom, compassion and empathy. It regulates our ability to see the humanity in another person as opposed to seeing them as a threat. It governs the understanding of moral issues…good, bad, right, wrong. It’s where we understand cause and effect and therefore the consequences of our actions.
When this area of the brain is strong, we can think clearly, make good decisions and be aware of ourselves and others. When this region is strong, we’re able to manage difficult thoughts and emotions without being totally overwhelmed by them. While we might want to make a snarky comment to someone, the prefrontal cortex reminds us that this is not a good idea and helps us manage our emotions so we don’t do or say things we will later regret.
The cortex is where we want to be for as much of our day as possible. That’s what we mean when we say “Getting to the cortex” is the key. For many people who committed a crime in their teens or twenties this necessary part of their brains wasn’t even fully developed yet. The prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed until we’re aged 25 or even 30 years.
The prefrontal cortex also governs behavior control, self monitoring, mental flexibility, judgment, inhibition of behavior, problem solving, planning, anticipation, speaking, emotional expression, awareness of abilities, motor planning, personality limitations, organization, ability to pay attention, concentration, initiation, understanding consequences.
The Prefrontal Cortex governs:
- Behavior control
- Mental flexibility
- Inhibition of behavior
- Problem solving
- Emotional expression
- Awareness of abilities
- Motor planning
- Ability to pay attention
- Understanding consequences
Here’s how these three brain parts work together when faced with a traumatic event:
When the body feels it’s in danger, the brainstem triggers and activates the amygdala which sends an alarm throughout the body and shuts down the unnecessary bodily functions. This includes shutting down digestion and the prefrontal cortex. The body moves from rest and digest to fight, flight or freeze. It sends hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, into the bloodstream so your body can take action. The body is getting ready to fight, to run away or to freeze like a deer in headlights. This is an inbuilt system of survival intended to keep us safe when we’re in danger.
We’ll say it again…when we’re in fight/flight or freeze the prefrontal cortex goes offline, stops working. This means we don’t have access to learning, to evaluation, to cooperating, to negotiating, to morality, to a notion of consequences. Everything is black and white, live or die. It’s fight or get the heck out of there.
When we’re in survival mode, we don’t have access to emotional control, impulse control. We don’t have real control over the actions that we take once we’ve been triggered. But we don’t want to get to this place because then we do things we regret later. Then we find ourselves in trouble, hurting someone, doing things we wouldn’t do if we were in our right mind… our cortex. And that’s what this entire series is about: giving you tools to get into your right mind, your creative mind, the mind that helps regulate your emotions and responses.