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The Neuroscience of Trauma 🧠
"Trauma" get's thrown around a lot today, but what is it?! (8min read)
What is trauma?
How does trauma affect the brain?
The Mind, Brain, Body connection (iPad demo)
Trauma stored in the Body
Resolving Trauma w/ Bottom-Up Processing
Somatic Experiencing, Yoga, Tai Chi, etc
Top-Down after Bottom Up
Today, we are going to be taking a deep dive into an area of Neuroscience research that has been getting more attention over the last few years, which is trauma.
Trauma is connected to both Mental Illness & our overall Mental Health in ways that we are just now starting to understand.
This is a word that is used a lot in today’s world because of some of this new research but may not be very well understood by the masses.
This is why I thought it would be a great topic for the Heroes Digest!
What is Trauma?
Trauma is defined as, “Any negative life event that happens in a position of relative helplessness.”
Some of the most common examples of trauma are sexual trauma like rape, verbal or physical abuse, natural disasters, terrorism & PTSD.
However, it’s not just these extreme examples that can be traumatizing. Here are some lesser-known causes of trauma:
A car accident
Having a demanding parent or teacher
Being fired or laid off
An inability to stand up for yourself
You might be thinking to yourself that some of these things have happened to you, but you weren’t traumatized by them, so what gives?
This is another key to understanding trauma, there are 3 important pieces of a trauma.
The event, the experience & the effect. This taps into the power of our mind to direct what happens in our bodies.
Let’s use a house fire as an example. Imagine your house catches on fire, this is the event.
Your experience of this might include terror & panic as you call 911, try to find your kids to get them out of the fire, make sure your pets escape, and save yourself as well.
The effect of this long-term may include nightmares, unexplained panic attacks, or PTSD related to your experience.
Now, let’s imagine you’re the firefighter called to the scene of the fire, this is the same event as before.
However, for the firefighter, running into a fire is something she does multiple times a day.
She’s running through the checklist of how she’s going to put it out, how to get the people out safely, etc.
The experience & effect of this same event would build resilience in the firefighter instead of PTSD.
It’s very easy to dismiss someone who says they’re traumatized because our experience & effect of the same event could be different then thiers.
These effects can be acute, like anxiety & terror, and long-lasting like PTSD, and addiction.
Arguably the scariest of all the research that’s being done is on the effect that childhood trauma can have on our whole life.
Childhood Trauma & The ACE Study
Childhood trauma can have a profound effect on our overall health and life outcomes.
The ACE study is the most comprehensive study of childhood trauma ever done.
ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences.
In this study, 17,500 participants' childhood experiences were measured and correlated to outcomes in their life.
These ACEs could be neglect, sexual or physical abuse, or household dysfunction like divorce or having a parent with mental illness.
There were 10 total categories of ACEs. You can take a test to find yours here: The ACE Test
The results of this study are mind-blowing…
They found that 1 in 11 people have experienced 6 or more ACEs.
Having an ACE score of 6, meaning they checked yes on 6 of the ACE categories, correlated to a 4600%, yes, 4600% increase in the likelihood of drug abuse in adulthood.
An ACE score of 6 also correlates to a 3500-5000% increase in the likelihood that that person will attempt suicide in their lifetime.
Also, this same score correlates to a shortening of life expectancy by 20 years.
Higher ACE scores, even if they’re under 6, correlate to higher instances of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and smoking.
These ACEs also affect long-term physical health, increasing that person's risk for diabetes, stroke, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
How is this possible? The answer lies in the stress/inflammatory response of our brain & body.
Trauma in childhood puts us into a Fight or Flight mode with no way to cope with what’s happening to us, so we never leave this state.
This inflames our brain, and interrupts normal neurodevelopment.
Childhood trauma and the other types of trauma we talked about above both have this effect, and this is what we will be diving further into in this lesson.
Trauma's Effect on the Brain & Body
As we’ve already discussed, trauma puts us into a Fight or Flight response to protect us, this activates our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) to get us out of danger.
Because our brain is in this mode, we store memories of these events in a different way than we normally do.
Instead of a neat beginning, middle and end, trauma is memorized in more of a scattered way.
This could mean you remember a visual cue, a smell, a sound, a bodily sensation, etc, but you can’t make sense of the memory because there’s no clear beginning, middle, or end like with normal memory.
This creates a false narrative of these events, that have no sense of completion and are stored in different parts of our bodies depending on the event.
These scattered memories become triggers of the traumatic experience, however, since we’re not able to fully process the memory, our Amygdala fires back up our ANS because it thinks the danger is here again.
This creates a “trama habit” which kicks on our Fight or Flight response whenever these cues are picked up by the body.
Without ever going back to these traumatic memories and collecting the scattered memories into one coherent narrative, our bodies never release these emotional experiences.
To do this, we need to dampen the amygdala response using grounding techniques and tools and then process the feelings & thoughts of the experience in a non-Flight or Flight state.
If we don’t do this, our body stays in this state of chronic stress/ANS activation which can lead to a whole host of downstream effects caused by inflammation in our Body & Brain.
Some of these things we’ve already mentioned like Depression and Anxiety, but other things like chronic pain, muscle tension or soreness, anger, and dependencies on coping mechanisms like drugs or alcohol, are all ways that our mind, brain, and body are storing or dealing with unresolved trauma.
The Child Brain & Trauma
This hyperdrive of the survival brain has an especially detrimental effect on a child's developing brain.
Our brains grow from the bottom of our skull upward and then arch over the top of our eyes.
Another way to think about it is from back to front. Our more primitive brain is what develops first, which is the brain stem, then the limbic system, and finally our new brain.
Trauma in children leaves portions of these older portions of our brain underdeveloped.
So much so that “trauma holes” in these areas can be seen in a child's brain later in life.
These holes are in areas that are responsible for emotional regulation and our Fight-Flight response, and they put these kids in a permanent state of Sympathetic arousal which increases brain inflammation.
This is one of the hypotheses of how ACE scores of 6 or more contribute to the adverse life outcomes we touched on earlier!
Trauma in childhood puts us in a constant Flight-Flight mode, over time this creates brain inflammation that interrupts brain development & eventually leads to the negative outcomes we described earlier.
Resolving Trauma Through Bottom-Up Processing
Clinicians & scientists used to think you could think your way out of trauma responses, which is why traditional Top-Down therapies were some of the first solutions for people who have experienced trauma like we’ve talked about today.
However, as you now know, the scattered memories of trauma are stored all over our bodies and which makes it hard for our minds to create a coherent story to process.
Starting Bottom-Up has been shown to be a much more effective way to work on releasing trauma.
Processes like Somatic Experiencing focus on what your body is feeling and where to start collecting the scattered memories of trauma while also being sure to keep the amygdala dialed down so that once the scattered memories are collected, they can be processed, and released by our mind.
Once these bodily sensations are processed, using Top-Down approaches like CBT or NLP can be much more effective.
Other ways to do some of this type of Bottom-Up work include things like Yoga & Tai Chi.
Both of these practices help you become more aware of your body, and where you have stored tension, energy, and emotions to release.
At Rewrite & Rise, we focus on a Bottom-Up approach with all of our clients for this exact reason.
Oftentimes, by starting Bottom-Up, we don’t even need to do anything more intensive.
If you believe there's something in your past causing your trouble in the present, feel free to reach out to us, we’re always here for you!
Thank you for reading today’s post, and until next time… Live Heroically 🧠