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. 😉
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 that 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.
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. 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 also 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 or 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?”