What is trauma?
Trauma is a disruption of the natural and normal neurophysiologic release process after overwhelming experiences. Completion of that process can release the hold of traumatic experiences so the survivor can live in the present.
“Traumas embed when our system is overwhelmed by pain and fear without having sufficient internal resources or companionship to help integrate the experience, this primary wound of being alone.” – Bonnie Badenoch, “The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships
What does trauma do to the brain? Trauma changes the structure of the brain. It enlarges the amygdala (the fight-flight-freeze part of the brain), shrinks the hippocampi (the part of the brain involved in committing memories to the past), and reduces short-term memory and access to the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the “good decision-making” part of the brain. This causes tremendous problems for the sufferer/survivor, who becomes ruled by the limbic system, which is the Red Alert or fear brain. A brain on fire cannot make good choices, focus on enlightened things, enjoy beauty, or connect well interpersonally. To live like this is hell. To be told it’s a choice or the result of bad thinking or poor habits is to be sold a massive lie.
What does trauma do to the nervous system? Trauma changes the nervous system, which becomes tuned toward threat detection and protection rather than safety and connection.
How does trauma affect the rest of the body? Trauma affects every system and every cell in the body. It changes the shape of the ear canal, the tension of the eardrums, the makeup of the gut microbiome, the length and elasticity of the tendons, the hardness of teeth and bones, efficiency of metabolism, the function of endocrine, respiratory, digestive, vascular, muscular, and urinary systems. Trauma impairs the ability to self-regulate emotions, thoughts, behaviors, and body functions such as circulation, blood pressure, heart rate, temperature, perspiration, digestion, excretion, adapting to an upright physical position, interpretation of external sensory stimuli, processing pain, and ability to sleep and wake.
This has had a profoundly negative effect on the arc of life and portends the “chronic disease at midlife followed by early death” which is the typical life trajectory of the abused child.
How does trauma affect our relationships? Trauma often impedes the ability to have healthy relationships. The lack of laterally integrative neural fibers caused by trauma can greatly impede the capacity to sufficiently navigate relationships. This is because we are such social creatures that we need the same neural pathways for social engagement as we do for regulating our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and body functions. These pathways are damaged by trauma and chronic stress.
What are the most common symptoms of trauma and chronic toxic stress?
Anxiety, depression, sleep problems, “unexplained” or recurrent pain, chronic disease, angry outbursts, nightmares, flashbacks, triggers, intrusive memories and thoughts, avoidance of reminders, compulsive behaviors, phobias, hypervigilance, and many other physical and mental health conditions.
How does the nervous system respond to trauma?
It makes a split-second decision at the subconscious level. Understanding this relieves us of shame. We couldn’t react differently. This infographic from the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine explains.
What causes trauma?
Too much or too little for too long. This can be a single incident, years of abusive experiences, chronic unpredictable stress, or lack of parental attunement. Trauma can be mitigated by certain factors, particularly appropriate psychosocial support before, during, and after the overwhelming experience(s).
How can we recover from trauma together?
When we share kindness with each other, we actually change each other’s brains and nervous systems for the better. These exchanges foster the growth of integrative fibers in the brain. The resulting integration helps us better navigate relationships and self-regulate. Relational Neuroscience shows the antidote to mountains of cruelty and contempt is an ocean of kindness and compassion that offers a plethora of integrative experiences: those that help integrate the brain, mind, and relationships. The integrative relationship is always two-way.
“When the relationship is integrated, it stimulates the growth of integration in…[the] brain and integration of the brain is the source of all forms of regulation, like regulating attention, emotion, thought, memory, behavior, relationships, morality. All those are called executive functions. They’re the basis of resilience, the basis of health.” – Dr. Dan Siegel
What do trauma survivors need? Trauma survivors need and deserve far better than the standard treatment for PTSD, which is ineffective, often harmful, and too often deadly. Fortunately, the scientific field of Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB) shows us that we are designed to help ourselves and each other heal.
DISCLAIMER: This is not medical, psychological, pharmaceutical, or legal advice. The contents of this site represent my lived experience and understanding of the neurobiology of trauma through intense lived experience and almost 8 years of independent study.