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5 More Nuts and Bolts of the Traumatized Brain (Part 3)

“Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” – Helen Keller

**This article is Part 3 of 4 in a series entitled The Nuts and Bolts of the Traumatized Brain – See Part 1 here, Part 2 here**

Continuing the discussion of the human brain and the subsequent impact of trauma exposure, today’s article will focus upon five additional tidbits of information. Prior articles (see above) have addressed the role of the amygdala and hippocampus in trauma and trauma recovery. Moving forward in learning about the neurobiology of our miraculous cerebrums, we know that the body interprets trauma as a life-threatening event(s). Therefore, different parts of the brain fire up to respond to the perceived threat (real or imagined).

11) The HPA Axis is a hormonal/nervous system connection in the brain that lights up when the saber-toothed tiger is attacking (i.e. a present day trigger or perceived/real threat like a car accident, rape, abuse, reminder of prior trauma, etc.). The aforementioned HPA Axis is activated by stress and trauma and consists of the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands.  

12) The hypothalamus acts as a Command Center of the brain, communicating with the pituitary gland to release hormones, which in turn activate the adrenal glands to release hormones. These hormones include cortisol, opiates, oxytocin, and catecholamines, and they are released in varying amounts to ready the body to respond to trauma in “fight, flight, or freeze” response. Cortisol works to ready the body to have the energy to respond to the perceived threat; opiates reduce physical pain; and oxytocin reduces psychological pain.

13) As mentioned in the prior articles in this series, the hippocampus and amygala work together to process the trauma. However, with the HPA Axis producing the “neurological soup” described above, encoding, processing and storing information goes haywire during a traumatic event. The amygdala remains activated while the hippocampus goes “offline” and stores traumatic material in scattered “file cabinets” of the brain, rendering processing of the traumatic event, at best, difficult and memory consolidation impaired.

14) The area of the brain associated with language in the left frontal region, Broca’s Area, gets shut down during trauma. A flashback or trigger shuts down this part of the brain, rendering the survivor incapable or at minimum, very impaired, with their ability to assign words to the experience of trauma (van der Kolk, 2015).  Brain-wise psychotherapeutic interventions (like EMDR) help the brain to synthesize and organize the traumatic material in such a way that the brain is able to store the traumatic material in an adaptive fashion, whereby the “charge” of the limbic system lowers. In turn, the higher order executive functioning skills of language, focus and concentration go back “online” to assist the survivor with narration of the story and thereby mastering the traumatic experience (Herman, 1992).

15) “Bottom-up” processing of the trauma(s) involves helping the brain move into the action of recovery and getting unstuck from looping back to the state of being viscerally frozen in trauma (van der Kolk, 2015). Such interventions are designed to soothe and calm the limbic system and can include EMDR, sensori-motor therapy (i.e. somatic experiencing), expressive arts, music, meditation, trauma-informed yoga, prayer and mindfulness based practices, among others. Talk therapy (which requires a functioning prefrontal cortex that is back “online”) comes only after addressing the somatic components of trauma recovery.

The last article in this four part series will address interventions that help with healing the traumatized brain.

Retrieved from : September 25, 2018

Herman, Judith (1992). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence from domestic abuse to political terror; Basic Books.

van der Kolk, Bessel (2015). The body keeps the score: The brain, mind and body in the healing of trauma, Penguin Books.

(The original article was published on the author’s blog, From Andrea’s Couch)
5 More Nuts and Bolts of the Traumatized Brain (Part 3)

Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW

Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is currently the Lead Counselor at Cal State Maritime Academy, where she counsels college students and leads Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at the integrated Student Health Center. In her private practice, Andrea provides psychotherapy for individuals experiencing trauma and loss. She is also a writer, educator, and podcaster. Website:

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APA Reference
Schneider, A. (2018). 5 More Nuts and Bolts of the Traumatized Brain (Part 3). Psych Central. Retrieved on November 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 1 Oct 2018
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