This is a Brain on Trauma

The science boils down to this, the more trauma someone is exposed to, the more likely he or she will resort to these trauma responses, even when a trauma response isn’t warranted. Why does this matter? Researchers are now beginning to call trauma the next public health crisis.

Trauma, a short word with a BIG impact. Over the past few decades, there has been a lot of research being done on trauma, and I expect that there will continue to be for decades to come.

Two people can experience the same event; one being left with a traumatic response and another going on to function with no after effects. Trauma responses can include: chronic headaches, feeling jittery, disrupted sleep, inability to concentrate, upsetting dreams and memories, flashbacks, depression, increased vigilance, or anxiety. While this is not an exhaustive list, as you can see, the impacts of trauma are not pleasant. There are three types of trauma and four responses. Here is a quick overview:

Types of Trauma

Acute – single impactful incident, such as losing a home in the 2008 Cedar River flooding

Chronic – ongoing incidents, such as repeated domestic violence

Complex – exposure to multiple, prolonged traumatic situations usually starting in childhood, such as a child who is sexually abused by a father, who sees that father beat the mother, and who worries each day if she will have any food to eat and if another eviction notice will be on the front door

Responses to Trauma

Fight – angry or aggressive response

Flight – avoidant behavior 

Freeze – disassociating or immobilizing response

Fawn – prioritizing others’ needs and wants above your own at all costs

Understanding our Minds

As you can see, these various types of trauma and their responses are not the healthiest way to live life. What I really want to focus on is what happens when we have ongoing exposure to trauma? There is a part of our brain called the amygdala. It is one of the main parts of our “emotional brain.” The amygdala doesn’t have the ability to use logic and reason. It was designed to help in a fight or flight situation.

Let’s say someone was hiking in a remote area and came across a bear. It would be his/her amygdala that would help with the survival response of fight or run away. The thing is, our brains weren’t made for us to make survival decisions each and every day. When our brains get put in “flight/fight” mode regularly, we can then begin to go to that fight/flight/freeze/fawn response more and more often, without thinking about it. In fact, it takes a concerted effort to hinder that response.

When the amygdala is making the behavior calls, a person loses access to their front cortex. No, part of his/her brain doesn’t disappear; it goes “offline.” The connections to the frontal lobe become inaccessible, thus, a person loses that ability to access the part of their brain in charge of reasoning, logical thinking, planning, and complex decision-making. 

Repeated Trauma Changes Us

The science boils down to this, the more trauma someone is exposed to, the more likely he or she will resort to these trauma responses, even when a trauma response isn’t warranted. 

Why does this matter? Researchers are now beginning to call trauma the next public health crisis. When we raise a generation of individuals who experience chronic trauma, they can perpetuate unhealthy patterns to the next generation. Additionally, individuals exposed to chronic trauma are known to have lower life expectancies, higher levels of substance misuse, and higher levels of chronic health conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and asthma (this is not to assert that anyone with these conditions has chronic trauma).

Long story short, exposure to chronic trauma puts our bodies under situations of toxic stress. It creates both behavioral concerns and physical health concerns, and this is why trauma is being talked about at the next public health crisis. 

Overcoming Chronic Trauma

The bad news is, too many people are exposed to chronic trauma. Our children see what we model. When a mom frequently yells and throws things to get her way by instilling fear in her children, she teaches that aggression is the way to win.

Likewise, when a husband avoids any conflict with his wife and gives her the silent treatment for days on end, children learn to ignore problems instead of healthy conflict resolution. When an adult is locked in a state of indecision and misses employment opportunities out of fear, his children lose the opportunity of seeing critical decision making skills. When a wife constantly gives in to whatever her husband wants in order to avoid a fight, their children learn to people please and that their needs and wants don’t matter.

The good news is that once we get realistic about the problem, we can work to limit trauma exposure and instead instill healthy patterns in the next generation. Even if you don’t have children yourself, each of us have people younger than us watching how we handle situations in life. We cannot just say one thing with our mouths and model something else with our actions. It brings to mind the old adage, “You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?”

We Are Resilient

The good news is that our brains and bodies are resilient. While it can be challenging, exposure to positive role models (even if not primary caregivers) can help reverse the impacts of trauma and give individuals more of a toolbox of coping skills for positive behavior. 

Many of the patients we see here at the clinic have endured trauma. For some it’s abuse-either as a child or in a romantic relationship. Others have lived overseas and experienced war fought on their doorstep. I have heard stories of rape, incest, and human trafficking. Then there is the 2008 flood and 2020 derecho that impacted many peoples’ homes in our community. The list of heavy, heartbreaking situations could go on and on.

BUT, through everything I have mentioned above, I have also heard our patients express hope in times of despair. I have seen them trust God in really hard things. I have heard stories about a neighbor or friend’s parent or grandparent who was a huge support for them and kept them on track. And our clinic strives to be a positive impact on our patients as well. From coaching on soft skills and coping techniques to explaining paperwork and navigating conflict, we can be there to help our patients take steps forward in life. 

I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes from CS Lewis,

“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”

May we each strive to make positive changes in our lives, not only for ourselves, but for the generations to come. 

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