In this article for our Educational Series, trauma expert and survivor Liz Mullinar shares some insights into the neuroscience behind the physical changes that trauma causes to the brain. What she most wants you to know, though, is that these changes can be healed – and learning a simple and powerful method to release the “triggers” of trauma can help you do that.
How trauma changes your brain
“I think it is very empowering to recognise that the effects of childhood trauma are not so much psychological as they are physical – trauma physically affects the way the brain develops, which means that trauma impacts our behaviour, as well as our way of thinking and processing information. In the same way that lungs affect our ability to breathe, our brain affects our ability to process information, and that impacts on our behaviour and our emotional wellbeing.” – Liz Mullinar, author of Heal For Life
The changeable nature of the brain means that our brain, besides being incredibly complex for each one of us, is totally unique. The brain develops dependent on what we learn from others in this world. When that interaction is traumatic, especially when we are children, the effect of trauma on the brain is physical.
Imaging means scientists can now see what is happening in the brain in a living person while they are actually experiencing any thought or mental process. Already, brain scans can inform us by showing the damage our trauma has created, and how our brain changes once we heal from trauma.
Here is a brain scan done by Dr. Daniel Amen – one of 80,000 such scans that he has taken. It is worth looking at them all and his TED talks. You can easily see the difference between the healthy brain on the left and the traumatised brain on the right. You can see the brain damage where there are black areas of inactivity.
The good news is that, contrary to medical opinion until quite recently, the latest neuroscience highlights that our brains can heal from trauma damage.
Trauma and the structure of your brain
Trauma response and damage involves a range of areas in the brain, including:
- The corpus callosum – the connection between the two hemispheres (halves) of your brain: right and left
- The limbic system – closely connected to the brain stem, one of the oldest parts of our brains and where the amygdala or “fear centre” is located
- The cerebral cortex – our “thinking” brain, including the prefrontal cortex, which the fear centre will override to keep us “safe”
The corpus callosum
The two halves of the brain are connected by a bridge joining them known as the corpus callosum; this bridge ensures that we use both parts of our brains to make decisions in our lives. When functioning well, we use our thinking logical left brain together with our emotional right brain, which results in appropriate responses.
However, for many trauma survivors, the bridge is much smaller. In fact, the more dissociative you are, the smaller the link between the two sides. The consequence is that most of us either think too much or feel too much. The aim of healing the brain from trauma is to build the bridge so we use both halves of our brain more effectively so we can make wiser and happier decisions in our lives.
The limbic system
Closely connected to the brain stem so it can influence the basic functions governed there such as breathing and heartbeat is our limbic system, which is responsible for caring, bonding, empathy, and, most importantly in relation to trauma, it contains the amygdala.
Predominantly operating from the right brain, the amygdala has an incredibly important function: to warn us of fear. At Heal For Life we call it the “fear centre”. The amygdala contains the memory of anything that has frightened us, and this includes trauma memories. The fear centre has to remember anything very scary that has happened to us, in order to warn us if it might be about to happen again.
When our fear centre thinks something scary or dangerous is happening, we react before we think.
Trauma triggers are physical memories
Triggering is the reminder of a trauma or an unsafe event that occurs when a person experiences – through the senses – a reminder of a similar experience at the time of the original trauma.
Triggering creates the same mental and physical reaction as the original trauma – in order to respond to the perceived danger – which you can see in a very simplified version in the diagram below.
It is the same action as during the original trauma. The body prepares to respond to the danger via the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), and in the brain, the same areas become disconnected: Broca’s area for speech, and the prefrontal cortex for thinking and awareness of others.
The other area that shuts down Is the hippocampus for storing memory. When memories are stored in the hippocampus they do not trigger a survival response to keep us safe. When we are very scared, our brain wants to make sure don’t repeat the experience. It wants us to maintain a survival response in future.
This is basis of a trigger.
When we are triggered into a fear reaction through our senses, the brain produces stress hormones to ensure an instant response. In other words, we cannot access reason or logic, or even sometimes the ability to speak. We simply react.
This is what causes many of the emotional and behaviour problems that can be so debilitating for survivors. Triggering is, I believe, the greatest problem for us as we grow into adults, as it causes consistent reactive behaviour that we are unable to control or understand.
Fortunately, it is possible to ‘de-trigger’. In fact, learning how to de-trigger is one of the most effective tools for survivors of trauma.
How to de-trigger a trauma response
The first step to de-trigger is to learn to recognise the signs in our body – to be familiar with the feeling and how it is experienced in the body – that I did feel okay, and now I do not. I will have a fight, flight or freeze (or pain) response.
Fight is shown by suddenly being angry for seemingly little reason, flight can be the feeling of wanting to leave where you are, to escape, and freeze can be expressed in many different ways: physically by having a headache or body pains, or mentally by just becoming unaware of what is happening around you. Or the further state of freeze, which is called flop or fold.
You are triggered when something happens to your feelings or your body that does not really relate to what is happening in the now. Notice the next time you do not feel in control of how you are feeling – or when you are overwhelmed by a reaction to something that happens. This can be a sudden feeling of anxiety, dissociation, anger, or a deep need to run away or a physical manifestation, such as a headache.
You can read more about useful steps to “de-triggering” at the Heal For Life blog.
We can heal from the pain of trauma and triggers
As a survivor of childhood trauma, I understand the overwhelming pain of living with triggers and the courage that it takes to heal. At Heal For Life, we say that triggers are treasures, because through de-triggering they offer us the key to living the life we want – and deserve. I wish you the very best with your own healing journey, too.
Liz Mullinar is the founder of Heal For Life Foundation. Her latest book, Heal For Life: How to Heal Yourself From the Pain of Childhood Trauma, is available now.