When you understand more about a traumatized brain, you can take the right steps to heal.
About half the people you know, actually about half the people in the world, will experience some traumatic event in their life. Indeed, everyone reacts differently to these kinds of events and not everyone will develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But trauma can change how a mind operates in some very predictable ways. You can use this predictability to your advantage when coping with trauma and fear. With an increased awareness on your part, you can seek solutions for your symptoms and gain skills so that you can “rewire” what is going on in your brain.
Additionally, it can be really helpful when you know what is going on in your head because you can see that you aren’t crazy, a bad person, or irreversibly damaged. Instead, you can learn to think of a traumatized brain as one that works differently because of the traumatic event. Your brain changed once in reaction to what you experienced, and it can change again to new experiences. In other words your brain is “plastic,” meaning that you can change it.
Learn to think of a
traumatized brain as one
that works differently
because of the traumatic event.
In my blogs I normally avoid talking about the specific parts of the brain by name (most people just don’t care all that much), but in this blog I will need to change that approach so that you can understand what I am getting at. Ok?
Here are three brain areas you need to know about:
1. The prefrontal cortex (PFC)—the “thinking and processing center”
2. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC)—the “emotion regulation center”
3. The amygdala—the “fear center”
The Prefrontal Cortex
The PFC can be found near the top of your head, behind your forehead. It is primarily responsible for most of the modern day abilities we possess, including rational thought, problem solving, your personality, planning, empathy, and awareness of other people and ourselves as being different and apart. When this part of your brain is firing on all eight cylinders, you can think clearly, make good choices, and be acutely aware of ourselves and others; you see all the colors of life clearly.
Anterior Cingulate Cortex
The second area, the ACC, is located right next to the thinking center but deeper inside. When it works correctly, it effectively regulates your emotions, and has a close working connection with your PFC, your thinking brain. At its best, it helps manage challenging thoughts and emotions without being overwhelmed by them. Remember when you wanted to send that searing email back to your boss? It was the ACC that reminded you that it wasn’t a wise idea. The ACC helps us manage and regulate emotions so that we don’t do things that we will regret later.
The third and last area is the amygdala. It is a relatively small brain structure buried deep inside. This part of the subcortical area of your brain is outside of your conscious awareness or control; it serves as the fear center of your brain. In particular, it takes in all information, all that you see, what you hear, things you touch, taste, and smell and views them with only ONE question in mind. Is this thing a threat? Yes or no. Its primary purpose is to recognize threats and if it finds one, produce the primary emotion of fear. When this area is stimulated, we feel afraid, vigilant, and reactive.
The Effect of Trauma
So, what is going on in a traumatized brain? When you look at a brain scan, you can see that non-traumatized brains look quite different from traumatized ones in three specific ways:
1. The PFC is under-active in a traumatized brain
2. The ACC area of the brain is under-active in a traumatized brain.
3. In a traumatized brain, the fear center, the amygdala, is over- activated.
In lots of situations, the activations of the lower, primitive areas of the brain (subcortical areas) are quite high, including the fear center, while the higher functions, called cortical areas, are under-activated. In short, what that means is that if you are traumatized, you will experience chronic vigilance, fear, stress, and irritation. You more than likely will not feel safe calming down and trying to sleep. Thus you add to your chronic exhaustion. These symptoms, too, are a result of an over-active fear center.
At the same time, just when you need to be able to focus and concentrate, you find that you have difficulty with attention and focus. You may not be able to “think clearly.” When you consider that your thinking center is under-activated, it is a wonder you can think at all!
You can also find trauma survivors who report that they feel unable to manage their emotions. If someone startles them, they often maintain a rapid heart rate long after the joke has passed, or they may have a harder than normal time “letting go” of the little annoyances in life. Even when they really want to calm down and relax, they just can’t make it happen. This is a direct result of the weakening of their emotion regulation center.
Great; so what can you actually do about it?
The best thing you can do for yourself is to recognize the work that has to be done. Changing your brain takes time, effort, and repetition. If you are serious about making those kinds of changes, you will definitely need some kind of professional help. If it is a mild case, a coach can help you build new pathways, ways of thinking and acting, working with both your habits and your body. A coach will work with you on body based and mindfulness-based techniques. You will be able to add them to your daily routine, thus deactivating the fear center. As you do that, and combine it with rest, you will begin to strengthen and activate your thinking and emotion regulation centers. If you have a more serious issue, then you will want to reach out to a therapist who specializes in trauma or PTSD. You will want one who uses “evidence-based methods” that change the brain by working with both the body and the mind.
If you want to try this out for yourself, two fear center deactivating techniques are diaphragmatic breathing and autogenic training. The thing is to practice these techniques, or ones like them that work for you, 3-5 minutes several times a day. Remember, your brain responds to repletion and practice…do practice, repeat, practice repeat…. You will make progress.
If you have any questions feel free to reach out and get in touch.
SPEAK WITH A LIFE COACH IN BATON ROUGE
Frank Hopkins is a life coach in Baton Rouge who is certified as a Professional Coach (CPC) by the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC). Frank has helped numerous people to go through emotional change in a way that is positively transformative.