How Trauma Affects The Brain
Let’s keep it simple.
Well, it is the brain, so I am not sure how simple I can make this, but let me try to explain.
When something traumatic happens to us, enough that we believe we might be in danger (or worse, die), our limbic system goes nuts. Let’s think about parts of the brain like army sergeants.
The first army Sergeant’s name is Amy, and the second army sergeant’s name is Hippo. Amy is short for Amygdala and Hippo is short for Hippo-campus.
Sergeant Number One: Amy (Amygdala)
Amy’s job is to direct the emotional response system in your brain. She leads the brain’s emotional reactions. She keeps track of all pleasant and unpleasant events that happen to us. She records our feelings about these events.
She is also in charge of determining what is and is not a threat. She keeps track of all body sensations like touch, sound, sight, and smell. She determines whether this information is desirable or a threat. If she discovers that any sensory information is dangerous, she decides which response is necessary to save your life.
According to Amy, she has three options; to fight for your life, to flight for your life (run like hell) or freeze (stay still or act like your dead with the hope that the threat will get tired or confused and go away).
Amy doesn’t care about thoughts or rationality. She doesn’t have time. If she does not make a decision in a millisecond, you could die.
She sends her orders to your nervous system, your muscles and your hormones. Sergeant Amy sometimes gets confusing messages from Sergeant Hippo, and they compete with each other for leadership. In other words, they get into a scrap.
Sergeant Number Two: Hippo (Hippo-campus)
Sergeant Hippo has one job, and that is to record facts for your memory.
Sergeant Hippo’s job is to direct the facts of the incident. She deals with facts and not emotions. She is responsible for directing your brain to record the time frame. She records the beginning, middle and end of the event.
She directs this information to the cortex part of your brain. The cortex will then take this information and make a decision about what action to consider as well as make sense of what is going on. Sergeant Hippo does not care about feelings or sensations. Sometimes, Sergeant Hippo gets overwhelmed by stress hormones, which override her commands and cause confusion.
Sergeant Hippo tries to gain control but sometimes loses control, which causes her to start fighting with Sergeant Amy.
During the traumatic incident, sometimes Sergeant Amy and Sergeant Hippo get into it. They fight for leadership. Stress hormones rise, which causes Sergeant Amy to get really angry and punch Sergeant Hippo out.
While Amy is trying to keep the fight-flight-freeze responses of your body in full gear, Sergeant Hippo loses the fight. Sergeant Hippo usually gets punched out and passes out while Sergeant Amy remains in charge.
Now that Sergeant Hippo is no longer doing her job, the right time frame of events is no longer being recorded in your brain. Without a time frame, your mind can sometimes think the trauma did not end. Sergeant Amy and Sergeant Hippo need to work together because as long as Sergeant Hippo is down for the count, what ends up happening, is every time the body gets a signal that there is a threat, (such as rapid heartbeat, dry mouth, butterflies in stomach, or excitement), Sergeant Amy thinks that your body is experiencing a threat which causes her to send out the command to fight, flight or freeze again.
The problem is that sometimes you are safe when she sends out the commands. I don’t have to tell you how embarrassing this is when your friends look at you and say ‘Why are you overreacting?’, ‘Are you ok?’, ‘Take a chill pill!’, ‘Hello, is there anyone home?’ ‘Why do you keep spacing out?’, or ‘Why did you get into a fight with that guy?’.
On top of all of this is the reality of Sergeant Hippo unable to record the facts and time frame of what actually happened during the original traumatic event. This usually looks like fuzzy memories, flashbacks, or nightmares of the original traumatic events. It’s actually Sergeant Hippo trying really hard to get things back in order once she comes to from that sucker punch, but unfortunately, it’s too late, and Sergeant Amy still has control.
Amy has control over your instincts to keep fighting, flighting, or fleeing whichever one you typically use the most. In some cases, we can call this post-traumatic stress disorder or complex trauma. But at the end of the day, the label doesn’t really matter all that much. What matters is whether you are suffering from these distressing symptoms that are interfering with your quality of life.
The good news is that there are treatments that can calm the limbic system down so that you can actually help the hippocampus and amygdala to start working together again.