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Trauma Explained

The way I explain trauma to my clients usually goes something like this: We have three distinct parts of the brain that align with our evolutionary history. We have the oldest part of the brain, the brain stem and surrounding areas, that keeps our heart beating and lungs breathing without us having to think about it. It also drives us to eat, have sex, sleep, and respond to threats. The next stage of development brought our cortex. The cortex organizes our learning by receiving and sorting sensory input and creating memories. The most recent development is what makes us uniquely human - our prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is in charge of judgement, decision-making, and impulse control. It allows us to make decisions as we respond to our sensory input, memories, and basic drives for food, sex, sleep, and safety. It also acts as a brake system on the base instincts coming from the brain stem. This is the reason we can control our urges and make decisions based on long-term goals instead of immediate desires. Our brains are connected to our bodies through the vagus nerve, which is how we feel our emotions strongly in the gut and heart. Our gut feelings,or being heartbroken are sensations from neurons literally in your gut and heart, respectively.

When we are, or perceive ourselves to be, in danger, the prefrontal cortex turns off. We respond by instinct, as the older parts of our brain take control to preserve our safety. These judgment-overriding trauma responses are fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. A good example of this phenomenon is when you touch something hot and instantly recoil. You didn’t have to think to yourself, “wow this is so hot it’s probably burning me. I should move my hand.” Your hand just pulls away instinctively. This is usually the function that keeps maladaptive coping skills like substance abuse, self-harm, and disordered eating ongoing, even for people trying to change their habits. It’s not physical pain we’re recoiling from, but usually emotional pain that feels too difficult to manage, so we instinctively numb or distract ourselves.

Another important difference in the way our brains process trauma is how our memories of these events get stored. In non-traumatic situations, we create memories in chronological order, creating episodic memory. These include things like “Yesterday I went to the store, but they were out of grapes, so I had to go to a second store, then it started raining, and I went home.” In traumatic situations, the memories don’t get stored in order, but scattered and fragmented, and are often tied strongly to sensory input - images, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations. When one of these memory fragments comes up again, we don’t experience it as taking place in the past. Our bodies respond as if the old trauma is happening at that moment. This is a flashback. An example commonly portrayed in the media is a combat veteran dropping to the floor in response to a loud sound (flight response), or becoming aggressive when startled (fight response). This likely happens to thousands of veterans every day, as a loud sound prompts their body to respond in an instinctive, repeated, muscle-memory sequence, having experienced loud sounds as life-threatening. This person may not be remembering a specific memory - it’s just a subconscious trauma response, where the brain has short-circuited and overreacted as if it is in immediate danger again. Just like pulling your hand off a hot stove.

This same subconscious trauma reaction process can occur in more subtle ways. For women raised in fundamentalist religions, we tend to revert to submissive, people-pleasing mode when interacting with older white men in positions of power. We’re more likely to fall into the freeze or fawn trauma responses. We may clam up and forget everything we wanted to say before arriving in the same room with an older white man. This response can be much worse if he’s wearing a suit or sitting behind a desk, invoking old memories of meeting with church leaders. We may hear ourselves agreeing with things we disagree with, volunteering to take on tasks we don’t want to take on, saying “thank you” or “yes Sir”, or even start crying. Later, we can’t figure out why we acted that way, said those things, or cried. These are also trauma responses connected to the power men have had over our lives, salvation, and personal worthiness. Even if we have intellectually learned and believe that patriarchal church leaders do not have any power over us, older parts of our brains may still be catching up to our new reality and respond in ways that have kept us safe in old paradigms.

We all have trauma. The limited scope of most people’s understanding of what counts as trauma is woefully narrow. Military combat, car accidents, violent crimes, and other life-threatening situations are extreme and objective threats to one’s safety that most people can agree would count as trauma, but the truth is that trauma is completely subjective. Two people can experience the same event and have different responses. This is very evident in religious trauma, where any sensory input could bring up a memory, and be interpreted as a threat. For example, a child who has been taught rapture doctrine comes home to an empty house after school and panics, assuming her family has been taken to heaven and she has been left behind. Another child could arrive home to an empty house and be delighted to have the freedom to eat snacks and watch a forbidden television show. The way we interpret our world is filtered through what we have been taught to be true, and our brain will respond to that version of reality until we can fully process trauma memories and sort them into episodic memories that we experience as existing in the past. For many people with religious trauma in particular, the disconnect between intellectual understanding and these instinctive trauma responses can be distressing. Understanding our human development and the purpose of these strong subconscious drives can help contextualize these moments so we know how to move forward.

We are born completely helpless creatures that rely on adult caregivers for the first several years of life, unable to feed, clothe, or protect ourselves. Our first method of communicating is crying, which is a request for attention and care. Our brain development is shaped by our environment and the people caring for us, to maximize our chances of surviving. In fundamentalist religious communities, we often learn we are in charge of our own destinies, to strive for self-sufficiency, and that we only need a relationship with God. This is at odds with the reality that we have biological needs to trust and relate to one another, especially as young defenseless children. These needs continue into adulthood. The need for connection is universal to all humans and is so strong that people kept in isolation for extended periods of time experience severe mental illness including psychosis and suicidality.

Despite any doctrine or cultural values teaching us otherwise, whenever our sense of safety in relationships is damaged or threatened, this can be experienced as a life-threatening trauma and shapes our way of seeing ourselves and the world. These traumatic events can happen before we have verbal abilities, or the ability to form memories. Some traumatic events, like family and spiritual abuse, are chronic, systemic, and repeated frequently, meaning our nervous systems and brains adapt to being under constant threat. We can have trauma triggers that exist in an entirely non-verbal, visceral way, that we may be completely unable to explain to ourselves. Instead we may blame ourselves, or misinterpret our own sensory experiences. We chide ourselves for being lazy, when we may be experiencing adrenal fatigue from spending so much time in a hypervigilant state, scanning for threats and striving to meet impossible standards.

Many of us with mental health diagnoses may have been taught that we have a chemical imbalance that requires medication to correct, when it is much more likely we have early trauma that can be healed and resolved through a variety of trauma resolution therapies. Medication can be an important part of this healing, but it’s not enough. Many of us develop psychosomatic symptoms like headaches, chronic fatigue, and digestion issues as a result of living with high levels of stress hormones coursing through our veins for extended periods of time.

We also know through epigenetics research that traumatic experiences our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents went through affect our gene expression. We could have nervous system reactions to things we never encountered before as dangerous. I’m reminded of my own panic at being expected to picket and march with my labor union outside my work building. I felt completely unsafe, vulnerable, and terrified, and could tell my reaction was completely mismatched to those around me. I had an instinctual sense this was related to my mother’s and grandmother’s experiences in Havana during the communist revolution, when dissidents were being jailed and disappeared for speaking out. Keeping my head down and avoiding attention felt like the safest thing to do. I saw the confusion in my colleague’s faces when I refused to participate the next week. I am positive my reaction was read as disloyalty, but my experience was that I was keeping myself safe by staying inside and not including myself with people voicing a desire to change our circumstances to people in power. I chose to honor my own nervous system’s needs rather than subject myself to unnecessary stress to meet others’ expectations of me.

As a counselor, I often see people misinterpreting their trauma responses and internalizing blame for things outside their control. When I explain the neuroscience of trauma and contextualize their experiences in this way, it creates a new paradigm and opens up new possibilities to manage stress and trauma responses, moving toward healing. When we can understand ourselves with compassion and knowledge, we can respond appropriately. Instead of distracting or numbing ourselves to trauma responses, we can learn to experience them in a way that allows our bodies to digest and resolve the traumatic experience.

Over time, this creates trust in ourselves and our ability to respond to our needs. To change a maladaptive habit, we must choose and practice a new skill (like deep breathing, mindfulness meditation, or connecting with safe others) while we are in a state of calm, and our prefrontal cortex is engaged. Only after quite a bit of practice will these behaviors become familiar enough for our instincts to choose them in a time of stress.

The metaphor I often use for this is diet. When we eat healthy food for long enough, eventually we start to crave vegetables instead of potato chips, and feel an aversion to excess sugar. In order to replace a panic attack with mindful breathing, the breathing must become a regular practice to ingrain itself into our behavioral repertoire, available to our panicking lizard brains that cannot make a thoughtful decision. When we are able to do this, we’ll continue to experience emotional and visceral flashbacks, but with the ability to let the physiological and emotional stress rise up and experience it fully, which is incredibly uncomfortable. If we can stay with the feeling without shutting down, numbing, or running away from it, it will resolve and we can experience lasting resolution - lowered stress hormones and teaching our nervous system that this trigger was not life-threatening. Over time, we can prevent the hostile takeover and reshape our brains and nervous systems to stop overreacting to trauma triggers. Eventually this makes it easier to regulate and manage our emotions, reducing the need to numb and distract.

We all have trauma. Growing up in a fundamentalist religion adds the extra complexity of religious trauma and miseducation of our body signals, brain development, and emotional needs. We all experience trauma triggers and behaviors that we look back on and can’t understand why we did that thing. It’s just our brains trying to keep us safe. Working with these features instead of against them is necessary to achieve lasting healing and change. Then we can experience post-traumatic growth: becoming a better version of ourselves by transforming pain into strength, compassion, and hope.

An exercise to try:

Make sure you have a few hours of unscheduled time, or as much time as you can scrape together. Sit or lie down so your body can relax completely. Close your eyes and listen to your breathing. It can help to place one hand on your heart and one on your stomach. Feel your lungs expand and contract. Notice your thoughts when they distract you and try not to follow them or judge them. Imagine your thoughts as passing clouds, or leaves on the surface of a river. If an upsetting thought or memory comes up, let the emotion with it rise up. Notice the ways you automatically push it down or try to avoid this emotion. Stay with it for ten breaths. Notice if the emotion changes. It may get stronger or weaker. You may feel tightening in your chest, stomach, shoulders, or jaw. Every time you breathe out, imagine breathing out the tension and discomfort. See if you can stay with the discomfort and emotion until it fades naturally. If you can’t, that’s ok. You can try again another time. See if you can increase the time you can sit with that uncomfortable emotion by 1 or 2 more breaths next time. Spend the rest of your unscheduled time journaling, drawing, playing an instrument, or doing gentle movement. If you felt very strong emotions come up that brought tears,you may want to have a nap, or go to bed early.

To read more about trauma and the neuroscience behind our reactions, check out my Bookshop recommendations here:

If you’re ready to work with a therapist one-on-one, Dr. Tanya Johnson is taking new clients. Book a free consultation here.

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