The neurobiology of trauma. How PTSD begins.

I’ve done a few science based blogs in the past and they went over very well. I promised at the time to go in to more detail at some point so here I am. Please pardon my inner medical geek. ๐Ÿ˜‰
I will not use any triggering type memories to explain anything. You are safe here. I promise.

When we talk about trauma, we are really talking about is fear.
Fear is at the core of any traumatic event and how we process that fear is the basis for a PTSD diagnoses.
Being scared or fearful alone is not enough thank goodness. It is situations that have caused terror. A true and real fear for your life or physical/emotional safety.
Trauma/terror and that fear causes physical changes within the brain thatย  fundamentally change the way a person’s brain works. It is not just “in your head”. There are truly dramatic changes caused to the physical brain and how the brain functions.

The Brain.
If we take a step back and look at some things that we consider core human capacities like the ability to reason, to think, control our impulses, to plan ahead, and contain our emotions so a situation that makes us angry does not make us automatically lash out or hurl obscenities without first thinking of a rational thought. These processes and the ability to contain emotions all take part within the frontal lobes of the brain which I prefer to refer to as the “Thinking Brain”.
This Thinking Brain is the last to develop in your growth. It does not reach its full maturity until a girl is roughly 21 and a boy is roughly 25. This is one of the wonderful reasons why teenagers are so darn fun! When you ask them “What on earth made you do that?” and they look at you with wide eyes and say “I don’t know.”. They really mean it. They don’t know.
The Thinking Brain is also very sensitive. It does not deal well with trauma or stress.When you get stressed or experience trauma, your Thinking Brain reacts very poorly. ย  This does not have a major impact on your life for every day stressors but I am sure you can rather easily see that no one makes the best decisions when feeling pressured or stressed.

If you do not know about the Amygdala, it would be very helpful for you to read this before continuing on. The Amygdala

This is the part of the story where trauma changes the game completely.
If a trauma is severe enough, the fear epicentre of our brains, the amygdala, sends messages to your brain stem and cells within this area causes a cascade of 2 chemicals. Norepinepherine and dopamine.
These chemicals have an incredibly dramatic effect on the Thinking Brain (frontal lobes). They basically handicap it. They take your ability to stop, think calmly and make a rational decision away from you. Not completely, but they do a very effective job at making you have a very hard time doing even simple tasks that you would normally find very simple. Controlling your impulses, planning ahead, or containing emotions becomes very difficult.

Another function of your Thinking Brain is to remember events. The hippocampus helps too but I will stroke the hippocamus’s ego on another day. Fair enough?
When something important happens in your life, something memorable and good, you can go back and recall details for people. For the most part, you can recall those memories in sequence and also in context. An example, the day I got married. I awoke, we went out for breakfast with the few friends we had invited (we were semi-eloping), we returned to the hotel, I did my hair and my make-up, I put on my cranberry coloured pantsuit (sorry… I HATE dresses)… then I panicked! I got cold feet in a big way but now it is an amusing story to tell the kids. The memories from this day make sense. I can go forwards or backwards, I can relate one event to another. It’s quite easy to make an amusing story out of it all now with ease.

With a traumatic event, the amygdala and what I like to refer to as the “Reptilian Brain” takes over. This is the place where you find the instincts to fight, freeze, or take flight. It controls your heart rate, your breathing and many other very important life-sustaining functions. It does not however do any “thinking”. This area just reacts. It’s very primal and what the heck? Reptilian sounds cool right?
Memories that are stored here, the traumatic or terrifying ones do not get the same benefits that the Thinking Brain is able to offer. The memories stored here do not get encoded/processed correctly and they are stored as largely sensory information. The memories alsoย  tend to be fragmented and very intense.
You may recall nothing that makes much sense to you about a whole hour during the trauma but you can recall the smell of a certain hairspray as though it is glued to the inside of your nose. You may recall the sight or the sound of a flag flapping in the wind. You may feel that you can taste the salty air orย  be able to recall the feel of a smooth rock in your hand. These memories are almost burned in to your memory as fragments and these are also the reason for flashbacks and nightmares. You are reliving the memory of that flag flapping in the wind and even though there is no flag and no danger now? Those sheets on the clothesline took you right back to your trauma.
This is not something that is done willingly in any way. These memories just pop up and completely overwhelm the brain all over again. It becomes a vicious loop of triggers, flashbacks, nightmares, fear, memories that make no sense and now thanks to the damn little amygdala firing off all the time rather than only when needed? Those memories do not get to travel to the Thinking Brain is such a way that the Thinking Brain can make sense of them. This makes the event extremely hard to find any resolutions or endings to.
This is the birthplace of PTSD.

To be continued on Wednesday…
“How do we attempt to make sense of our trauma?”

10 responses to “The neurobiology of trauma. How PTSD begins.

  1. thanks for the interesting post, Heather…


  2. Great post! As a fellow science nerd, I appreciate the neurobiology references.


  3. excellent post. thank you


  4. Wow… that’s amazing that you should write about this, Heather. I have only just been thinking about how the brain processes trauma. Only yesterday I was researching some articles online and then, lo and behold, this wonderful post! ๐Ÿ™‚

    What has been fuelling my questions about trauma were recent suggestions from a couple of well-meaning people that I should stop thinking of the past and concentrate on the here and now… mindfulness, and all that. As you know, I’m in therapy and for weeks have been stuck in different aspects of past trauma. To me, telling someone to forget about it and stay fixed in the present moment, is like asking someone who’s had their leg in plaster-cast for months, to forget about the physiotherapy and run up the stairs. In my mind, dealing with past trauma IS the here and now. In some way, the trauma is tattooed on our brain (and now I know why)… that same brain that lives in the โ€˜here-and-flippin-now ๐Ÿ˜‰

    So, all this new info kind of confirms what I was thinking. The only way I know of to “get over” trauma is to sit with and observe the feelings for as long as it takes. What that process does to the brain, I am unsure, but from hands on experience, it somehow releases some of the trauma and our brain starts to think in different ways, even perceive the trauma in a slightly different light.

    Oops, I got slightly carried away! A wonderful post, Heather, I look forward to reading the 2nd part


    • I am so glad that this came at a good time for you. The 2nd part is up now. ๐Ÿ™‚
      I know people mean well when they say to just think positive or stay mindful. They do not understand (as I did not either) that trauma causes a physical change in the brain. It actually changes shape and we have too many “reptilian” reactions compared to the well thought out stuff from the frontal cortex. We can’t help that and thinking positively won;t change a thing when you get triggered.
      We CAN change those pathways though and teach ourselves to not react immediately but rather take a breath first. If you practice A LOT, your brain will begin to work more like it did before trauma.
      I really appreciate your feedback!

      Liked by 1 person

      • People do mean well and this is why I am taking time to research, so that I can perhaps educate and they might be a little more understanding about being “stuck in the past”
        I imagine those changes in the brain are possible and, while I appreciate they come through practice, there is also something else that occurs when we explore the trauma through therapy… some kind of brain reaction to that experience. I have no clue, really, just feeling my way through it. Thanks, Heather ๐Ÿ™‚


  5. Pingback: Trauma on the Brain | My Travels with Depression

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