How the Brain Adapts After Trauma


The humming of a perfect melody fills the room when a tiny silver dial is wound  clockwise. Inside a metallic box, a petite woman dressed in lilac moves rhythmically to the tune, parading both her delicacy and intricacy with every turn.  When the knob is spun the right way, she doesn’t miss a beat and her beauty is captivating. However, spinning the dial counterclockwise changes the entirety of this experience. Instead of watching the liveliness of this women’s movements to the beat of a harmonious melody, one watches the woman collapse from her stand as the melody begins to skip. It only took one small movement to carelessly tamper with the silver knob. However, the once precise rhythm of the woman is now off beat. Unfortunately, this scenario resonates for many people who experience a traumatic event. “Trauma brings with it a strong feeling that leaves you shaking to the core of your being. It changes the way you look at life, people around you, yourself and the systems of government,” (“Trauma is the Stealing of my Sense of my Sense of Being me: A Person-Centered Perspective on Trauma”). What may seem like only a small component of one’s life can instantly become an epicenter of inner turmoil and the loss of identity. It takes one wrong move, one wrong action to alter the entirety of someone’s world.

“After trauma, the world becomes sharply divided between those who know and those who don’t.  People who have not shared the traumatic experience cannot be trusted, because they can’t understand it,” (The Body Keeps the Score). Unlike physical injuries for which we seek medical attention instantly, coping with traumatic events is a battle often faced alone. This is due to the fact that many survivors of trauma feel shame because they feel a part of them has been stolen, tainted or even destroyed. “Feeling out of control, survivors of trauma often begin to fear that they are damaged to the core and beyond redemption,”  (The Body Keeps The Score). Trauma is a hidden scar. Instead of leaving a physical mark, it takes a sharp swing at the wiring of one’s brain. Unlike a broken bone, a wounded soul is often pushed aside and avoided due to the unbearable pain it takes for one to speak up about their own experience.

Denial and avoidance are typical responses to trauma. In fact most survivors are so distraught over their experience that they can not bear to think about it. “Why bother when one has learned so effectively to cope with the wound?” (The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse). Trauma survivors often cope by experiencing a period of shock and denial. However, what the conscious mind attempts to forget, the subconscious remembers. “While we all want to move beyond trauma, the part of our brain that is devoted to ensuring our survival (deep below our rational brain) is not very good at denial. Long after a traumatic experience is over, it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and mobilize disturbed brain circuits and secrete massive amount of stress hormones,” (The Body Keeps the Score). The reality is that one’s response to trauma is not just an emotional reaction; Instead, it is the flooding of the brain with stress hormones that can be triggered at the slightest threat. “Trauma produces actual physiological changes, including a recalibration of the brain’s alarm system, an increase in stress hormone activity, and alterations in the system that filters relevant information from relevant. We now know that trauma compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive,” (The Body Keeps the Score).  Trauma is said to feel like the loss of someone’s identity. However, it is actually so much more. Trauma is the rewiring of the brain in order to adapt to a new phase of life.

Emotional numbness is a indicator of trauma and dissociation. “Often the memories of past abuse are accompanied with little emotion other than disbelief or incredulity. It is not unusual for the memories to be separated from emotion—often it is as if they are frozen in ice—seen but not able to be touched,” (The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse). This occurs because in  moments of helplessness and incapability of defending oneself the mind will distance itself from pain. “States of subjective detachment (e.g., depersonalization, derealization, and numbing) may help to create an inner distance to the overwhelming experience by dampening unbearable emotions and reducing conscious awareness of the event,” (Dissociation and Alterations in Brain Function and Structure: Implications for Borderline Personality Disorder). The mind does this so that the person experiencing an event will be able to survive without experiencing the entirety of the pain.

“Symptoms of dissociation are caused brain system.” Sierra and Berrios proposed that symptoms of depersonalization may be associated with a “disconnection of a cortico-limbic brain system, involving the amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and prefrontal structures,” (Dissociation and Alterations in Brain Function and Structure: Implications for Borderline Personality Disorder). This fact is significant because the limbic system, amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex all play significant roles in emotional regulation, memories, and emotional arousal. One who experiences a disconnect in these areas will have a hard time feeling in touch with their reality and experiencing the true emotions of a traumatic event. This is also why survivors of trauma may experience a sense of denial or disbelief after a traumatic event.  In addition to this, people who experience symptoms of dissociation may feel as if they are outside of their own body. “The traumatic situation may be perceived as an unreal film-like scene that is not happening to oneself but observed from a wider distance. Somatoform symptoms such as analgesia and out of body experiences (e.g., the sense of floating above one’s body) may reduce awareness of physical injury,” (Dissociation and Alterations in Brain Function and Structure: Implications for Borderline Personality Disorder).

While dissociation is used as a way to protect someone from the true magnitude of their emotions, for some people this becomes a primary way they learn to cope with stress. “Dissociation can also develop in the aftermath of trauma and generalize across situations, i.e., individuals who learned to dissociate in response to traumatic/stressful situations may be more likely to do so in the presence of even relatively ‘minor’ stressors,” (Dissociation and Alterations in Brain Function and Structure: Implications for Borderline Personality Disorder).This is why dissociation often occurs long after a traumatic experience ends. When the same stress response is triggered even the slightest, the brain overcompensates and attempts to protect the person in the way it has learned in the past.  

“Overwhelming experiences affect our innermost sensations and our relationship to our physical reality- the core of who we are,” (The Body Keeps the Score). It is no wonder that people who have experienced such devastating events struggle to cope with loss. “Trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain and body,” (The Body Keeps the Score). Someone who experiences a traumatic event feels a separation in the person they were before and after trauma. However, with treatment one can find a way to integrate a new sense of self and to reclaim the voice that is rightfully theirs.

References

“Free Image on Pixabay – Music Box, Box, Ballet Dancer.” Music Box Ballet Dancer · Free Photo on Pixabay, pixabay.com/en/music-box-box-ballet-dancer-music-2361885/.

Allender, Dan B.. The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse (p. 44). NavPress. Kindle Edition.

Wade, Barbara, and Rinie Schenck. “TRAUMA IS THE ‘STEALING OF MY SENSE OF BEING ME’: A PERSON-CENTRED PERSPECTIVE ON TRAUMA.” Http://Socialwork.journals.ac.za/, 2018, doi:http://social work.journals.ac.za/.

Van Der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma . CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2018.

Krause-Utz, Annegret, et al.Dissociation and Alterations in Brain Function and Structure: Implications for Borderline Personality Disorder, Springer US, 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5283511/.

 

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