When Trauma Strikes: The Secrets Our Brain Hides Behind

Updated: Oct 16

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Trauma intimately engages with us all. The ground moves beneath an already unsteady rationale, encumbered by circumstances that cannot be altered, for this is set in stone with the past. The only thing that we can modify is our reactions, future choices, and methods of adaptation. Some may be disrupted by a small life adjustment due to the presence of chronic stress, while others may be taken down by major stressors. Despite the differences between our situations, coping mechanisms, and environmental circumstances, we are all affected. Those occurrences are emotionally categorized as traumatic, thereby altering subsequent responses. As a result of previous unfortunate outcomes, the emotional system reacts by creating a mirage of fear and doubt when faced with next level challenges.

We are then left to chisel away at the protective layer that surrounds the truth. It is much easier to admit never being broken, hurt, or forever changed, so much so, that secrets become surrounded by denial. The barriers created are so much like layers of concrete that they only can be accessed with a jackhammer. So, how can we disengage protective mental mechanisms and learn to replace them with appropriate coping skills?



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The Reptilian Brain

According to Our Three Brains -The Reptilian Brain by Andreas Komninos, in Maclean’s Triune Brain model, “the basal ganglia and a number of the surrounding structures within the base of the forebrain are responsible for 'species-typical' behaviors, which are present in aggression, dominance, territoriality, and ritual displays.” Komninos defines the reptilian or primal brain as a structure that controls automatic self-preserving behavior patterns that ensure species survival. Dr. Andrew E. Budson’s article “Don’t Listen To Your Lizard Brain” from psychologytoday.com similarly describes the reptilian brain as a structure composed primarily of the basal ganglia (striatum), which is involved in primitive drives such as hunger, thirst, sexuality and aggression associated with territoriality. Habitual and procedural memory involved in regular daily routines are also included. Additional behavior patterns include defense of self, family, and personal property. This structure is important because it helps the primal brain distinguish between threatening and non-threatening stimuli. This is what controls fight or flight mechanisms.


Fight or Flight

Fear, fight, and flight is regulated by the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). In response to a threatening stimulus, these regulatory mechanisms are activated. For example, heart rate increases, pupils dilate, and adrenaline surges through the body. This is the primary response for fighting against a predator. Fleeing takes place when the system realizes that there is no possible chance to protect itself. This is the alternative solution for being in attack mode. Emotion becomes further regulated on the basis of these basic responses. When fight or flight are no longer viable solutions, stress reactions and traumatic responses occur.


Cortical Regulation of Emotion

It is suggested that emotions and stress are primarily processed through the reptilian brain, then regulated by higher order brain processing centers such as the prefrontal cortex. Higher order information processing systems are necessary to counterbalance the reptilian brain with the impact of chronic stress.

Research suggests that the neocortex was developed throughout evolution from reptiles to mammals, primates, and subsequently humans. These functional microcircuits throughout evolution have been present as a form of information processing. Bosmon & Aboitiz (2015) state:


Early selection of neuronal architectures based on the oscillatory excitatory-inhibitory balance...lead to subsequent emergence of inferential coding strategies (predictive coding), which are able to expand computational capacities (p.1).


The cerebral cortex is delineated by the expression of transcription factors (TFs) such as Pax6, Emx1 and Tbr1, which is conserved in all vertebrates. These proteins code for projection neurons which create specialized networks that advance information processing. The reptilian brain performs, in comparison, more lower order associative, emotional, motor functions and is far less complex than cortical circuitry (Naumann et al., 2015).


In other words, we have these intricate networks that control fear or stress related emotions. This would be like a car tire that keeps the car running properly. The durability of the tire is intended to prevent the inner air from exploding. In humans, the prefrontal cortex keeps people safe from anger outbursts and emotional meltdowns. The problem is that emotions can be suppressed to the point of denial. It does not mean that these feelings do not exist. They certainly do not disappear; they remain in the subconscious. Trauma, abuse, fear, anger or disdain may even manifest physically or mentally, which can be identified by high blood pressure, nightmares, flashbacks, etc. Unlike mammals having the capability to experience and remember traumatic events is what makes humans unique.


How does this affect trauma?

When faced with a frightening situation, not every response is conducive to fight or flight. So the consequence becomes the generating learned fears. With repeated exposure, the body reacts with a stress reaction. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) might then result when these aversive events become reinforced by ongoing experience, thereby impairing psychobehavioral response mechanisms. The neurotransmitter gastrin-releasing peptide (GRP) increases GABAergic inhibition in the lateral amygdala during extinction of conditioned fear. When GRP is prevented, fear memory persists (Cantor, 2009). Upon examining these neurochemical changes, it appears to be possible that the reptilian brain holds the framework for the trauma. The cortex on the other hand, continues to suppress the fear. But PTSD continues to manifest physically (blood pressure, heart rate, etc.) even if it becomes unrecognizable mentally. When these traumatic situations accumulate, they run the risk of becoming highly threatening to our psyche. This is why traumas that run so deep tend to be left hidden.

In the Unspeakable Mind by Shaili Jain, M.D., unspoken traumatic experiences become buried requiring much work to unravel. Oftentimes, the body becomes plagued by what the subconscious mind seeks to hide. This text provides reasoning for the importance of how trauma leads to PTSD in the absence of therapy. In order to ameliorate PTSD related symptoms, psychotropic medications in conjunction with therapy may be useful. But if you have limited access to professional help, there are ways to start the healing process.


Identify Your Trauma

This requires removing that protective layer surrounding your emotions and digging deep. You must be aware that your defenses are holding you back from engaging with your true emotions regarding stress and trauma. The longer you resist, the more they break you down physically and mentally. If you really want to get in touch with your inner self, write down a list of the first time you encountered stress or trauma. This can be very different from one person to the next. For some mild encounters will feel extreme to others. It is important not to judge yourself during this process.


Following the first list, create a second one that details specific experiences that correspond with robust behavioral reactions. This will help you to identify the origin of your biggest troubles. Sometimes it is too painful to talk about outloud. One example is a young girl who has been repeatedly raped by a family member. She has long feared talking about this, and has even forced herself to believe nothing happened years later. She blamed herself instead of realizing that he was mentally ill. Nothing she could have done would have changed how he treated her. When she finally acknowledges this personal attack on her developing mind, and learns to stop fearing all men because of him, she can begin to make progress towards healing.


Differentiate Between Mild and Chronic Stress

Whether or not we are able to afford intense therapy, there is one commonality between self-help and professional counseling. And that is to recognize what traumatic events are in your past. Those may be the ones you have terrible nightmares about or those that create the construct of fear in your present actions. However, regular stressors such as how to get to work on time, breaking a nail, or moving to a new house may not lead to long lasting trauma. There are various ways to evaluate whether the events in your past are worthy of being considered trauma-inducing. The intention is not to re-traumatize yourself in the process, but to determine how the event has impacted you as a person. This process requires you to take a deep, introspective look at your pasts. Below are a couple ways to identify which reactions have stemmed from deep pain.


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Dream Recognition

You can address the influence of the past by performing a few simple exercises. Take note of your dreams. Record when they take place as well as what happens in the dream. This will allow you to connect parts of what happens in your day to your subconscious mind. Keep track of your dreams for approximately several weeks, then review what you have written. Make sure to take note of any patterns. If you wake up with extreme panic, sweats, dry heaving, or rapid breathing, this may indicate that you’re making a subconscious connection to your most horrifying memories. Should you wake up unperturbed, it may be safe to assume you are in the clear. Because dreams seem to uncloak the unconscious mind, it's likely you will connect your worst fears during deep sleep when your guard is down.


Identify Your Triggers

Upon evaluating your dreams, you will notice that each traumatic reaction in your sleep corresponds to an emotional trigger. For example, you may struggle with constant dreams about the violent death of your father. Because of this fear of loss to extreme violence, you become panicked when you go to call your mom and she doesn’t answer the phone. Once you become aware of what leads to your PTSD, you have the opportunity to prevent unwanted reactions by reminding yourself that you are in a new moment where pain can no longer hurt you the same.


To start the process of healing means breaking those learned associations. In order to do so, use your journal to make a list. One side will keep track of the sense of sights, sounds, smells, or sensations and the other side will contain the corresponding emotional response. The moment you begin to recognize these connections is the first time you start to gain back control over your subconscious pain. Stimuli that trigger you will continue to occur. But in those moments, it is imperative to see that the trigger does not always lead to the same outcome. Over time, these triggers will dissipate, and you will begin to feel unfettered from your past.


Open Your Mind to the Present

With trauma, the past tends to dictate the current moment. For these individuals, it seems as though the present does not exist. Becoming mindful of each emotion and stress response, inner peace begins to develop. Performing mindfulness in accordance with meditation when in this state allows the mind to focus on the peace of the moment, rather than possible representations of painful memory triggers.


Find Your New Purpose

After identifying new ways to cope with the chronic stress and repeated trauma you’ve been exposed to, there is so much more to accomplish. Just acknowledging your trauma is not enough. Proactive efforts must also be focused in creating a new sense of self, one that you are comfortable identifying with. The best thing to do is start over where none of the same triggers and uncomfortable memories become a source for vulnerability.


Pay It Forward!

If you have managed to pull through a rough bout of post-traumatic stress, don’t forget to lend support to others. When going through this, most individuals feel as though they are suffering alone. In fact, there is always something that can be done to uplift and encourage the person beside you.


Healing is a process that requires time and effort. Just remember to believe in yourself and not in failure!


References


Bosman, C. A., & Aboitiz, F. (2015). Functional constraints in the evolution of brain circuits. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 9. doi:10.3389/fnins.2015.00303

Budson, A. (2017, December 03). Don't Listen to Your Lizard Brain. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/managing-your-memory/201712/don-t-listen-your-lizard-brain

Cantor, C. (2009). Post-traumatic stress disorder: Evolutionary perspectives. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 43(11), 1038-1048. doi:10.1080/00048670903270407

Jain, S. (2019). The unspeakable mind: Stories of trauma and healing from the frontlines of PTSD science. Harper.

Naumann, R. K., Ondracek, J. M., Reiter, S., Shein-Idelson, M., Tosches, M. A.,

Yamawaki, T. M., & Laurent, G. (2015). The reptilian brain. Current biology : CB,

25(8), R317–R321. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.02.049

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/managing-your-memory/201712/don-t-listen-

our-lizard-brain


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