In the first part of this blog series, I talked about how you may as an adult experience the consequences of childhood trauma in your everyday life. You can read it here. Perhaps you are struggling with anxiety, depression, in relationships, using substances or food as comfort. Maybe you are frequently reminded of the traumatic event(s) in nightmares or flashbacks and you often experience emotional flashbacks in form of self-critical thoughts. Your brain and the body have central roles in your experience of childhood trauma.
This blog post will introduce brain functioning in relation to (childhood) trauma. This is a simplified explanation of a very complicated and multi-layered process. Our brains were developed to keep us safe when our ancestors were hunter-gatherers living in caves and escaping from or fighting with predators. Therefore, the way the brain reacts to an activating stimulus can be very overwhelming and perhaps our brain is not fit for purpose for living in the stimulus-rich environment of the 21st century.
Having some understanding how our brain works in a potentially threatening situation may be helpful to normalise your feelings and reactions in relation to childhood trauma.
The role of the reptilian, mammalian brain and neo-cortex
Photo borrowed from http://website.lineone.net/~bryn_evans/Triune_Brain/triune_brain.htm
The oldest and deepest parts of our brain, the reptilian brain, are concerned with the very basic instincts, breathing, temperature regulation and balance, whilst the mammalian brain contains the Limbic system and it handles emotional responses (Gilbert, 2014, Lee, 2012, Van der Kolk, 2014). Both of the deeper parts of the brain are concerned with survival.
The newest parts of the brain, neo-cortex, and particularly the pre-frontal cortex are concerned with our thinking, rational responses, and those areas are concerned with self-soothing. A person who has experienced severe childhood trauma and emotional neglect may have these parts of the brain underdeveloped lacking ability to have self-compassion, engage in self-care, recognise own emotions and self-soothe.
Ability to self-soothe is developed when caregiver(s) provide consistent and warm attunement and care for the child. However, thankfully due to neuroplasticity, as it will be discussed in the next post, these areas of the frontal cortex of the brain can be trained to become more active and the person can learn to self-soothe, become compassionate and engage in self-care (Lee, 2012).
Seeking safety, fight, flight or freeze
Van der Kolk (2014) suggested that there are three levels of safety: seeking social support, flight/flight and freeze. In the mammalian brain, there is a small almond-shaped part called the Amygdala and it is like the fire alarm system of the body. In a potentially threatening situation, people are programmed to initially look for social support.
If the Amygdala detects something threatening to the body, it sends a message to the body to respond by either fight, flight or freeze. Often this happens so fast that the “rational brain” is bypassed particularly if the person has experienced something traumatic in the past. If the threat is too big and there are no resources to fight, the brain makes a decision to flee (Lee, 2012).
As it can be seen in animals, for example, when a cat is playing with a mouse, an overwhelmed mouse’s body freezes and it plays dead. Similarly, in humans when the Automatic Nervous System (ANS) receives a message from the Amygdala indicating that the threat it too overwhelming, the body loses its ability to react and protects itself by shutting down the Sympathetic Nervous System.
As mentioned before, the function of the brain is to keep ourselves safe, so if you feel that you should not be reacting to a certain situation or stimulus in a particular way, perhaps it is helpful to know that your brain operates in such a fashion that you are safe either emotionally or physically.
If you have experienced a traumatic situation where you did not either fight back or escape the situation and if you are now feeling shame or guilt for it, I hope it is of some comfort knowing that this was not something that you could rationally think. Your brain protected you by freezing the Automatic Nervous System.
Differences between normal memories and flashbacks
Normal memories are stored in the neo-cortex or cortex. You can imagine them being like in a library where you can quite easily access and retrieve the memories from the storage when you need them.
However, traumatic memories are very different: they are stored in the lower parts of the brain in the Limbic system, they are fragmented and it is difficult to retrieve them from the memory.
When the Amygdala detects a trigger that shares only 20% overlap with something that is associated with the traumatic event, it sends a message to the rest of the body that there is a threat (Lee, 2012). This is very hard for you if you are frequently reminded of the trauma experienced.
Walker (2013) wrote about “emotional flashbacks”, often demonstrated by self-critical statements as “I am not good enough” or “I am not lovable”. He suggested that you can view them as messages from the inner child about the neglect the person has suffered and what the inner child is lacking.
Grounding techniques for calming the overwhelmed mind
If you are regularly experiencing disturbing images or thoughts about your childhood trauma, there are various techniques you can use to relatively quickly alter your state of mind and feel safer. You can try some of these:
- Reassuring self-talk: “Say to yourself: “I am safe now. Today is (date). I am in (place). I am X number of years”
- Identify things in the place where you are:
- 5 things to look at
- 4 things to touch
- 3 things to listen
- 2 things to smell (or imagine your favourite smells)
- Name 1 of your positive qualities
- Soothing scent: Smelling a scent is the fastest way to send a soothing message to your brain (Lee, 2012). Find a soothing scent that will quickly bring you back to the present moment. For example, health shops sell different kinds of aromatic scents which you can quickly take out of your pocket or a bag.
- Soothing object or texture: Perhaps you like the feel of a particular texture, something like silk or velvet. Have a piece of your favourite material or something that has the texture that brings comfort in your pocket. Some people find helpful having a stress ball in their pocket or a handbag: it can be squeezed without anyone noticing.
Childhood trauma takes many forms and people have different emotional and psychological resources for dealing with the after effects. If you are struggling with self-esteem, anxiety, depression, eating difficulties, PTSD or any other difficulties, hopefully understanding how our brain reacts to trauma helps you to make sense of your experience.
The third post will focus on understanding how compassion can help to heal internal wounds. You can read it here.
I have also recorded a self-compassion guided meditation and a safe/happy place guided visualisation exercise, which can help you to feel more grounded if you are overwhelmed. I would suggest that you listen to the safe/happy exercise first before doing the self-compassion guided meditation. You can download them here.
Whether you have been affected by childhood trauma either directly or, for example, through living with a partner who has emotional and/or mental health difficulties due to childhood trauma, it is important that you have support for yourself.
Would you like to stop the suffering caused by childhood trauma?
Schedule your FREE 15min consultation to talk about how therapy could help you. I look forward to hearing from you!
Gilbert, P. (2009). Introducing compassion-focused therapy. Advances in psychiatric treatment, 15, 199-208.
Lee, D. (2012). The Compassionate Mind Approach to Recovering from Trauma (Eds. P. Gilbert).
Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
Walker, P. (2013) Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving: A guide and map for recovering from childhood trauma.