The Human Brain Overrides the Instinct to Discharge Trauma

Do you ever wonder why people with trauma experience pain years after the trauma happened? This pain often has no real cause and it is then called a “somatic illness”. Basically this means that it is pain caused by your trauma with no underlying physical cause (until you are older and years of pain catch up with you). Why does this happen to us and not to other animals that can experience trauma/life and death situations on a regular basis???

It is all because The Human Brain Overrides the Instinct to Discharge Trauma.
Special thanks to my friend who writes “The Healing Arts Therapy” for quite a bit of the research and writing included here. 🙂


Animals in the wild routinely experience life or death situations that stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, dump adrenaline into the bloodstream, and provide the energy or “charge” for a fight, flight, or freeze response. When a zebra is chased by a lion, adrenaline surges and the zebra runs for its life (a flight response). When the zebra knows it has reached safety, it instinctively “discharges” the remaining adrenaline energy by trembling, shaking, twitching, and jumping around. Because the animal completely discharges the excess adrenaline energy after the chase is over, it doesn’t hold the memory or the energy of the trauma in its body.

A zebra doesn’t hold tension in its body from every chase and live in the past thinking, “A lion chased me yesterday and I barely got away.” “A lion chased me last week and I’m still stressed out about it.” “A lion chased me last month and I’m still having nightmares.” (LUCKY ZEBRA!)

Humans have this same discharge instinct available in our hindbrains (reptilian brain), but our frontal lobes overwhelm the hindbrain. Following a traumatic event, we do tremble and shake, but as soon as our frontal lobes engage and become dominant, the discharge process is interrupted, and any remaining excess adrenaline energy is locked into the body.

For example, following a severe car accident, it would be good to shake and tremble until you were done, and you wouldn’t be done until all excess adrenaline energy had been discharged from your system and you felt calm. But you will have to override this shaking and trembling instinct and activate your thinking brain to take down driver’s license and insurance information and answer questions for emergency responders and police reports. Some of the trauma energy may naturally discharge, but the adrenaline energy remaining in your body when your frontal brain becomes dominant will be stuck there.

When the discharge of trauma energy is interrupted and incomplete, the excess adrenaline is still surging around the body trying to do what it is designed to do: provide energy for a fight, flight, or freeze response. When the frontal brain overrides the hindbrain and demands that the body stop trembling and shaking, the body has to do something to contain the adrenaline energy. So it “freezes” it into body tissues with chemical bonds to hold it still. This frozen adrenaline energy remains locked in the muscles and fascia and organs and nervous system until it can be discharged, sometimes for the rest of a person’s life. This held energy can create a multitude of symptoms and compensating behaviours.

Any human behaviour that we can do to release this trapped energy can be very useful to aid in healing.

11 responses to “The Human Brain Overrides the Instinct to Discharge Trauma

  1. Suzanne Taylor-Jones

    Another teaching blog post! I love, love, love these! As a chronic pain sufferer, and trauma survivor, I found this fascinating.
    I wondered what we can do to discharge our stored trauma energy? Exercise (ugh!)? What do you recommend, Heather?
    Also, is there a time when it’s too late to do this? I already have physical problems and have had two back surgeries, yet I continue to have pain. I have some pain that is incredibly awful,my at most people with the same condition never experience, even though they have the exact same physical issue. This must be somatic pain.
    How is this pain treated?
    Thank you for yet another fabulous post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks!
      For me, I get a release of trauma energy when I process an event. By going through it and describing my feelings and what actually happened, I am eventually able to release energy surrounding that one incident. This does not suit everyone though. I’ve had people who say they get a release by doing acupuncture, massage therapy, yoga…
      You have to fiddle around with different things and then use whatever works for you. Perhaps this is a topic for you and your therapist. She may have some suggestions?


      • Suzanne Taylor-Jones

        Heather, Thank you for clarifying how do rid ourselves of the excess, negative energy that persists after a trauma. I just pictured the poor zebra and assumed that we need to do something physical. But as you emphasized in your post, we humans have a Thinking Brain. It’s clear to me now that *this* part of our brain must be involved in order for us to let go of trauma energy.
        I hope my questions helped others, as your response definitely helped me! Thanks again, Heather, for sharing your wisdom.


  2. This is a big issue for me also. Thank you for bringing this up! This does make me want to pursue answers to this more. There has to be a mechanism to release the years of pent up trauma energy. It has to be physical and mental expression.


    • I think expression of any sort that makes you feel as though something inside of you is being tapped in to is a good thing to do. Exercise, therapy, massage, arts… whatever works for you. 🙂


  3. Wow, I have never heard of this but it makes so much sense. Thanks for educating me and so many others, Heather!


  4. Great post. exercise helps me. and like you processing the trauma helps too. XX


  5. Thank you, thank you, thank you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s