You may have heard of the concept of fight or flight or know that trauma can affect a person’s day to day life, but do you know why it happens? Trauma directly effects the brain and even changes the structure of the brain. When working with trauma victims, I have found that this knowledge can be comforting. Discussing what happens in the brain during trauma and afterward can explain symptoms experienced after trauma and lessen some of the agency of your reactions (ex: emotions and behaviors.)
Our brains are smart, resilient, and aim to protect us, so the unconscious processes that occur right before, during, and after the trauma were the body’s quick decisions to ensure your survival. The way your body reacted was not your choice. It was not in your control. Let me explain why.
The mind and body are very creative in helping to cope with trauma. When we endure trauma, the brain signals the body to protect itself. Most people have heard of Fight, Flight, or Freeze, but many don’t know the circumstances around which the body decides which one to go into.
They are nonconscious, instinctive bodily reactions to danger. If the brain thinks there is enough time, strength, and space, then it will signal flight, but if there is not enough time or strength then it will signal fight.
In fight or flight, the brain signals the threat and there is a release of chemicals, causing increased heartrate and breathing, slowing of digestion, and increased blood flow; activating the body.
Freeze, is another survival reaction that occurs if there is a lack of time and strength, and escape is viewed as impossible.
Freeze can occur in prolonged trauma threat situations, when the body knows fight or flight won’t work so it skips to surrendering. In freeze, the body will shut down bodily and mental functions. Often described as an out of body experience, the person can feel detached from their body, numb, without pain, and feel time slow.
Many trauma survivors may feel shame or guilt if their body surrenders, but it’s the brain’s way of protecting the body and mind from imminent threat by detaching from awareness and physical pain.
Because brain functioning is impaired during trauma, the memory is affected. Usually, the brain translates memories in a beginning, middle, and end; giving context in time and space in our life’s timeline. Unfortunately, during trauma, that part of the brain is shut down, preventing it from doing its job. Instead, the fragmented memories (some cognitive, some emotional, and some sensory memories) continuously pop up in the forms of nightmares, flashbacks, and body memories.
Often the language area of the brain is shut down in trauma and a person often loses the ability to speak. Afterward, the trauma memory lacks the verbal narrative, so the memory is a web of images, bodily sensations, emotions, and movements, lacking any order or organization. The brain’s ability to distinguish between real danger and hyper-sensitivity was impaired during the trauma, so the ability to tell the difference between safety and danger is lost. This is why bodily reactions can now become danger signals, so even increased heartrate due to excitement or being in a certain position in a room can trigger a fear/danger response.
CONTRIBUTED BY MAGGIE RIPPETO, TEXAS, LPC Intern
Maggie Rippeto is completing her Master’s of Education in Human Development Counseling, with a concentration in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Vanderbilt University. She is currently an Intern at Safe Haven Trauma Services in Nashville, TN where she helps adults process and cope with any trauma, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues in individual and group sessions. As a former collegiate athlete, I believe that working on mental health is as important as working on physical health. The the mind-body connection is valuable and fundamental in accessing our true feelings. Fostering our mental health gives us the ability to create deeper connections with ourselves and others. I like to work with my clients to provide helpful insight and practical tools. My goal is to help my clients heal from old pain, memories, and narratives that are affecting their present, while utilizing their strengths to promote safety and healing in their daily lives. Some of my issues of interest include young adults struggles, life transitions, trauma, attachment issues, women’s issues, athletes/performance, stress/anxiety, self-esteem, and coping skills.