“The paradox of trauma is that it has both the power to destroy and the power to transform and resurrect.” – Peter A. Levine
The field of psychology has grown by leaps and bounds in terms of its understanding of the nuances of brain psycho-biology. Fortunately we are living in a time where cutting edge brain research is happening as we speak, and we learn something new about our grey matter on a daily basis.
1) For those impacted by trauma, we now know that the brain rewires itself in such a way that those with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) experience flashbacks, hyperviligance, avoidance behaviors, panic attacks, somatic tension/aches and other symptoms (DSM-5). A little organ deep within the limbic (emotional) portion of the brain, entitled the amgydala acts as the brain’s “fire alarm.” Unfortunately, for survivors of trauma, the amygdala is working in overdrive and is firing off when it’s not needed, resulting in the above symptoms.
2) Trauma work with a competent and compassionate psychotherapist addresses the need to calm the amydala down via brain-wise and trauma-informed modalities, such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), expressive arts interventions, mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral work, somatic experiencing, and other approaches. It is possible to rewire the brain to a state of calm and self-soothing, essentially desensitizing targeted traumatic event so that it can be tucked away in the proper “file cabinet” of the brain.
3) Traumatic memories are held in a scattered fashion within the brain (akin to several chapters of a book placed in different file cabinets in a disorganized fashion), which makes it difficult for survivors of trauma to generate a cohesive narrative of their experience. When a trauma occurs, the cognitive and verbal brain go “offline” so to speak, and memories are stored in the somatic/sensory part of the brain. Bilateral and trauma-informed interventions such as EMDR can be utilized so that the scattered memories are reassembled into one tightly organized “file cabinet” in the brain, to be tucked away in a less activating manner, so that the amygdala can calm down.
4) We know that physical sensations (muscle tension, headaches, nausea, etc) can be remembered before emotions or cognitions (intellect) help to bring understanding of the trauma (van der Kolk, 2015) because of the way the triune brain holds memory. Thus the importance of trauma-informed clinicians utitilizing brain-wise interventions which allow the synthesis of somatic/emotional/cognitive recollections of the traumatic event (Perry, 2005). Once coherent and synthesized, the client can then bring together a cohesive narrative of their experience, thus mastering the traumatic material and generating the ability to calm the amydala (Shapiro, 2017).
5) Restoration of brain health following trauma involves daily self care and self compassion, accessing the body’s innate ability to flip the switch to the relaxation response (Benson, 2000). Various ways to calm an activated and traumatized nervous system (which sends the amydala in over-drive ) can include trauma-informed approaches to wellness such as yoga, deep breathing exercises, hiking in nature, mindfulness based meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, massage, reflexology, creative visualization, and mindfulness based cognitive restructuring.
(Part 2 of this series will elaborate further on the Care of the Traumatized Brain)
Benson, Herbert (2000). The relaxation response. Harper Collins.
Levine, Peter A. (2012). In an unspoken voice: how the body releases trauma and restores goodness, North Atlantic Books.
Perry, B.D. Maltreatment and the developing child: How early childhood experience shapes child and culture. The Inaugural Margaret McCain lecture (abstracted); McCain Lecture series, The Centre for Children and Families in the Justice System, London, ON, 2005
Shapiro, Francine (2017). Eye movement, desensitization and reprocessing (emdr) therapy, third edition : basic principles, protocols, and procedures, The Guilford Press.
Van der Kolk (2015). The body keeps the score: brain, mind, and body and the healing of trauma, Penguin Books.
( A version of this article first appeared in the author’s own blog, From Andrea’s Couch)