In order to really understand how trauma is manifested in someone, I have to try to explain a little bit of physiology of the brain. I am going to be very basic as I promised this was going to be an easy to understand blog. But this is also part of why things are the way they are for people with trauma related issues. But before I go there I want to share something that came to me the other night. Not everyone has trauma, not everyone gets this at all. Be careful trusting your healing to someone who says they get it, but really does not. That is why I want to do this blog. To help those who are suffering even a little bit to understand why and what is going on so they do not get taken. People with PTSD and trauma relating issues can be extremely vulnerable and therefore easy marks.
I actually was shocked when I first began therapy to find out not everyone is messed up…which is probably not the right way to say this. What I mean is that I had no point of reference to know I was different. I did not know there was even anything wrong with me. I knew I was scared. I knew I was filled with constant fear. But that was not why I went to see someone. I went because I was in constant pain. I will come back to this in a later post. My point was I had no idea what hypervigilant was and that I was extremely hypervigilant. I did not like to be touched. I had big time issues, and still do sometimes, looking someone squarely in the eyes. I will also talk about the importance of eye contact. But again, I had been like this for so long, I thought it was normal. It was my normal. It is not everyone else’s normal. I really thought other people had childhoods like mine. Some do, but no one has the exact same experience. Be careful of therapists who claim to know your pain and then proceed to tell you how bad their life is. You are paying for them to listen and work with you, not you listening to them. It is also not a competition: “who had the worse time as a kid?” There are times when similar experience could be crucial such as working with soldiers. I also think it helps that a therapist truly understands sexual assault. But all this will be for later discussions. I am just trying to explain why I am writing about all this.
But I must share this experience I had years ago. I went to this counselor who was attached to a Mega Christian church. My brother-in-law attended and recommended it. It was a huge congregation and they had a counseling services right at the church. This was many, many years ago. I went because I was starting to have issues in my first marriage. I went once to meet the counselor and she wanted me to write about my life. I went home and then wrote about thirty pages of stuff. I brought it back the next visit. First of all, she had this annoying habit of sighing after everything I said. Her: “So, Jane, how are you?” I would reply, “I am doing ok.” Her: “(((((Sigh))))))” She proceeded to read my story in front of me. She starts sighing in rapid succession and then burst into tears and left the room. I remember sitting there and saying softly under my breath, “That worked well.” I left and never returned. I laugh now, but that could have been very damaging.
Back to science: The brain is an organ composed of many compartments that all do different things. There are three main parts: The Reptilian, the Limbic, and the Neo-Cortex. The part that is in not in charge for someone with trauma is the cortex. The reptilian brain is the survival brain. The limbic is emotions based mostly on past experiences, or in some cases; trauma.
The Reptilian brain gets its name from being the oldest part of development of the brain. Make perfect sense if you believe in evolution, like I do. This is survival at the most primitive state. It controls heart function and breathing. It is what makes us fight when threatened or retreat or flight if needed. Sometimes the body will go into a freeze. Think of a possum or pill bug that rolls up. If humans have instincts, then this is the part of the brain that may be involved. We have innate fear of harmful things such as snakes, spiders or even the hot stove. This part of the brain kept humans from walking up to a tiger and cuddling it.
The limbic system is the emotional center. I am going to spend a lot of time on this in later posts because this can be the center for major issues for trauma patients. There are ways to work with helping and I will share what I know and hopefully readers will chime in with what they know. In the center of this area is a “mass of nuclei” known as the amygdala. When I first was learning about this, I thought of one of those garbage cans with a spring lid on it. You step on a pedal and the lid pops up. I thought of this amygdala as being that garbage can with the spring lid stuck open all the time spewing stuff. This is what happens when someone has PTSD. That little bugger is stuck on or open and firing all the time. The stuff spewing out of it is chemical and electronic signals that fire up other glands and areas of the brain that flood your body with lovely things like cortisol. Do not let the small size of the amygdala fool you. It is a very powerful nasty critter when it is overwhelmed. I will talk how it gets overwhelmed. Just remember this is all natural, and just like other diagnosis, can often be remedied.
The rest of the brain is the learning and thinking areas. We actually use very little of this part of the brain. Some less than others. The issue is that most therapies work on this part of the brain. Cognitive Based therapy, CBT, or talk therapy works in this part of the brain. For examples, affirmations that are supposed to rewire your thinking are applied here. Trouble is that little bugger Amygdala is more powerful and will over ride that kind of therapy in no time. The route of PTSD and trauma based issues is that they are not “learned” like a lesson. They are sensed. You have to retrain the limbic system. You cannot think yourself differently; you have to learn what safe feels like in order to turn off the amygdala. And if you have no clue any more what safe is, well….. hence why this is so crazy hard to fix.
So this is a pretty simple explanation of how these three systems in the brain work or do not work. I would love to hear what you think. Please comment in the comment box or share your story with us.