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How the brain processes traumatic events. January 4, 2013

Filed under: trauma — Positive Changes 4 Women, Inc @ 8:47 pm
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How the brain processes traumatic events

Trauma can be intrusive. It can interpret and dictate your current life (Burke, T, http://www.rachelsvineyard.org/index.htm)”

Trauma is often a word that is frequently associated with soldiers at war. Very rarely is it used for survivors of rape, child abuse and domestic violence, divorce and natural disasters. Trauma is a mental response to an incident that can produce painful memories, uncomfortable feelings (such as anxiety, anger, difficulty breathing, irritability, intense fear, helplessness etc) which may resort to extreme behaviors such as drinking, taking drugs, over eating, cutting, suicide attempts to either alleviate or numb the painful feelings and thoughts.


“Traumatized people have alterations in their brain. Memory is affected by lapses–there are deficits in verbal recall. The frontal cortex ability is decreased. Less ability to do left-brain functions–it can’t distinguish a real threat from a false threat. Intense stress or trauma is accompanied by the release of hormones,(Burke, T, http://www.rachelsvineyard.org/index.htm)”


Most trauma experts agree that the symptoms and problems that determine what is considered “traumatic” is dependent on numerous factors including, the individuals own natural ability to cope with stress, how serious the trauma was, resiliency, coping skills, life experiences before the trauma, and what kind of help and support the individual gets from family, friends, and professionals immediately following the trauma. Some trauma survivors often get re-triggered causing them to experience the same mental, physical and emotional feelings before and after the trauma. Thus learning about neuropsychological processes that are involved in the processing of trauma can be an important step for the survivors, loved ones and family members to help in the process of healing.


Amygdala is a small, almond-shaped portion of the brain that is a part of the limbic system. It was designed to protect us from dangerous things like a saber toothed tiger or getting eaten by a grizzly bear. It’s the primitive part of the brain. It acts before it thinks (kind of like toddlers). It knows nothing about reasoning or cognitive functions. It deals with feelings and emotions. It controls emotional reactions such as fear & anger.It’s the alarm portion of the brain. If the Amygdala determines that there is danger, it will shut down all non-crucial parts of the body such as the digestive system and enlist every part of the body to fight the threat. The Amygdala is also responsible for the “fight, flight or freeze syndrome.” If the  limbic system perceives that it does not have enough time to fight or flee it will freeze as a means to survive. You will often see this action in nature. It is important to remember that your reaction to the trauma was not a thinking process and was not up to your conscious mind. It came from an instinctive part of your brain that is approximately 50,000 years and is programmed to protect you from any avoidable danger.


Hippocampus involves memory and encoding new information such as past experiences, facts feelings, thoughts and awareness of our autobiographical past. It has an enormous capacity to store data for future references. According to an article written by Molly Keeten, Phd, (2009), “when the brain stores a memory within the limbic system instead of processing through to the cortex, it seems to just float in the hippocampus so that it can be easily accessed.” The hippocampus controls our emotional response by transforming sensory stimuli into emotional and hormonal signals then refers this information to other parts that control behavior. So when the Amygdala in the limbic system perceives a threat, it releases the hormones to actively prepare the body to fight, flight or freeze and supercharges the memory. This is why a simple thing such as a smell of cologne or hearing a song on a radio can send a body in to fight, flight or freeze.


Molly Keeton, Phd (2009), further reports that “for survival purposes, it may be preferable for the brain to over generalize signals of danger than to under generalize. However, emotionally speaking, this can wreak havoc on a person’s life and health. Traumatized individuals may be more vulnerable to making false associations and interpreting danger in an environment where none exists. Due to plasticity, the more the autonomic nervous system is engaged, the more this pattern becomes ingrained. The more this pattern is ingrained, the more the ANS will be set off. This is the cycle of living with PTSD. In addition, an experience that sets off the body’s alarm response can alter the sensitivity of that alarm response. Over time, even non-sensory cues (remembering the event) can signal the amygdala and lead to an emotional response of fear.”


There is a plethora of information  regarding trauma and the effects it has on an individuals psyche:  Some good sights are as follows:







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