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The Brain’s Response to Trauma

Our response to trauma determines its affect on us, writes Lucinda.

All of us, to one degree or another, are carrying at least some unresolved trauma from the past. Every time we reach for something external to make us feel better – we are seeking to soothe a past trauma.

Whether it be drinking every evening, hiding from work, constant snacking, over-eating, under-eating, smoking, self-harm, people-pleasing, over-shopping, being a doormat, narcissism or an inability to keep healthy boundaries – this is trauma is playing out in our subconscious.

Flight. Flight, Freeze or Flop

Every living animal or human has an inbuilt threat detector in the brain; it is there to prevent us from being killed; it’s called the amygdala. When this threat detector is activated – when our brain detects a threat – adrenalin is sent through the body to enable us to escape from the danger.

This is the fight or flight response: I either fight the threat, or I run away.

If our brain realises that fighting or fleeing is futile, then it will send us into a freeze response where we feel immobile. Think ‘rabbit in the headlights.

Now this is all well and good if we are an animal in the wild. Or, if we have a lion hurtling towards us. Amazing – we’ll flee (hopefully), or we’ll stay rooted to the spot and it will think we’re a tree.

In other words, the threat detector is perfect when there is a threat of physical danger, because it unconsciously works to get us away from that danger.

However, as humans, the amygdala also detects emotional threats.

And this is where it can get messy.

When we are threatened emotionally, our brain performs the exact same process as if the threat were physical.

So, if we are young and we are being shouted at, we’ll detect danger, or a threat, and we’ll go into fight, flight or freeze.

If we are being bullied at school: ditto.

If we are a highly sensitive child and our parents are frequently emotionally absent: ditto.

If we are shamed as a child (compared with our peers, told off in public, told we are lazy, told we are not good enough, had family expectations put upon us) then ditto again. There is another trauma response – this is “flop” or submit. This trauma response is generally learned when traumatic events are repeated, over time and we have unconsciously given up hope of anything changing. So we bypassed fight, flight and freeze – and immediately go into “flop”.

The Pre-frontal Cortex

Another thing that happens when we go into fight, flight or freeze, is our pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for rational thought, decision making, and problem solving – is taken off-line.

Again, this is essential in helping us get away from a lion hurtling towards us in time, in order that all physiological efforts can be directed towards not being killed by the lion, because in that moment, we do not need to think; if we did think then we would probably be killed.

But our rational brain goes offline with emotional threats too. Not so helpful.

The Left Brain Function

The absence of left-brain function at the time of trauma, is the main reason that trauma becomes stuck.  

Unless we realise pretty darn quickly that the threat is gone, then that left brain won’t come back online in time for the trauma to be processed. And the event will stay stuck.

As children, our left brain only starts to be used around the age of three and is not fully developed until we are in our early 20s. So, as you can imagine, there is ample opportunity for material to remain stuck and unprocessed from our childhoods.

If we are not trauma informed, then it is entirely out of our control whether we manage to process a trauma or not. Traumatic events are scary, and the panic and fear around feeling scared is often lumped on top – meaning we’ll stay in the trauma response even longer.

The longer we remain in the trauma response at the time, the more likely it is that the trauma will not be processed, because the left brain just won’t come back online again. And for a child, unless a parent or other adult performs the calming, soothing safety-bringing words and actions of the left brain – and this really is not understood well enough at all – then a child doesn’t stand a chance of having their trauma processed.

Threat detection and the subsequent trauma response is an unconscious, physiological process in the brain and the body, which is designed to protect us in a situation that has threatened us either physically or emotionally.

Take a look at my recent article “Covid-19 is a Collective Trauma” for tips on keeping trauma responses at bay during these times.

Author: Lucinda Gordon-Lennox

Trauma Specialist MSc (Reg MBACP, FDAP Accred)

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