Your brain on trauma

Remember that old TV commercial? There was a frying pan with a cracked egg being cooked.  The voice-over said “this is your brain on drugs.” The meaning was clear — do drugs and your brain gets fried. 

I won't debate the question of drugs here. My message concerns the changes that can happen to a person's brain when they are subjected to early or long-term abuse and trauma.

What is trauma? 

Good question. There is no easy definition of trauma, but generally it is anything that is experienced as overwhelming to the person. 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV defines quite a few physical threats to life and limb that would constitute trauma. I think emotional losses can be just as traumatizing to the psyche. It's quite likely these kinds of experiences might well be outside the person's immediate ability to cope. 

Just because there is no blood does not mean it wasn't traumatic! Read about the academic definition of trauma.

Early life trauma and brain development

At this point, there is an avalanche of research to prove that safety, security and reliable care are the necessary (although not sufficient) conditions for the proper neural development of a baby's brain. Allan Schore says the very architecture of the cells in the brain are sculpted by the quality of a baby's early attachments. Yes, it's true. Our early experiences are that important. Learn more about this leading-edge scientist. 

When the home is not safe, when there is the threat of violence (physical or verbal), the child cannot completely relax and stays on high alert. Did you know that there is a part of our brain called the amygdala (it is part of the early warning pattern recognition system), which can recognize a threat in 44/100th of a second? Our ancestors needed to know right away if it was a bird or a sabre-tooth tiger in the bushes!

What does all that have to do with trauma? If the amygdala is consistently on alert then our para-sympathetic nervous system (calming system) does not mature as it should because it is never safe enough to actually be relaxed. Gabor Mate has written on this subject as well as how trauma informs addiction.  He says that various complex circuits in the brain, such as the rewards system which involves natural opioids or the motivation system that uses dopamine are both exquisitely tuned to respond to the environment.  Read more about Gabor Mate's inspiring work here.

Listen to this story from CBC about childhood trauma's long-term impacts. 

When trauma feels normal

As I mentioned at the beginning, trauma need not be limited to physical threats.  Marion Woodman once noted that many people are mystified by the severity of their symptoms when they are quite sure they were never sexually or physically abused as children. However, neglect and hearing demeaning or disparaging comments from parents or teachers can be just as traumatizing as a slap. 

One of the many tragedies of early and long-term trauma is that this compromised situation feels normal; the child grows up expecting that kind of treatment. It feels familiar. Perhaps the child may then look externally for guidance and rewards, rather than listening to what her heart calls out for her to follow.  Read more about Ms. Woodman's brilliant writer here.

Healing trauma

But wait! There is good news! The brain is always plastic. That means we can learn new behaviours, reflect, and process and change old habits. We can take in more nourishing beliefs about our self and the world. And this is where therapy can be a real ally in a person's healing journey. The therapist forms a secure bond with the person and together, as a team, they go into the places that hurt and work toward creating the new authentic life.

Please remember: it's never too late. Your pain and your early trauma need no longer be the driver of your life. You can become more who you really are.

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