“Trauma is an experience we have that overwhelmed our capacity to cope.” —Dr. Dan Siegel
A lot of people understand the basic premise of trauma—that a traumatic experience can devastate our ability to feel a sense of trust, safety, and control in the moment. However, what many of us don’t know is that every part of the brain is impacted by trauma. The right brain lights up, the left brain shuts down, the back of the brain becomes hyperactive, the front part of the brain decreases its activity, and the connection between various parts of the brain becomes discombobulated. In short, the nervous system is flooded by stimuli, which either freeze it into paralysis or move it into overdrive, causing it to become hyper-alert and hyper-reactive.
The body typically goes into fight, flight, or freeze when it perceives a threat. This is an automatic, not conscious, reaction. Fight-or-flight is a trauma response that enables us to either fight or flee in order to defend ourselves. The freeze response is also known as “reactive immobility,” and it’s almost like fight-or-flight is on hold as you prepare for self-protection.
Trauma can impact our hormones, especially adrenaline and cortisol. The stress hormone cortisol increases, and so does adrenaline—which revs us up for the purpose of helping us to recognize and get out of danger; the problem is, both cortisol and adrenaline can be toxic at high levels. Cortisol can shut off the function of the hippocampus (the part of the brain that regulates learning and spatial navigation), while adrenaline can increase the function of the amygdala (the part of the brain that processes threatening, fearful stimuli).
When you experience a spike in cortisol and adrenaline, you typically experience the following:
- An increase in the heart rate to bring oxygen to the muscles
- An increase in the rate of your breathing to deliver more oxygen to the blood (as in hyperventilating)
- Dilated pupils, which lets in more light and increases your peripheral vision
- A sharpened sense of hearing
- Thickening of blood, preparing the body for plausible injury
- Sweaty or cold skin
- A reduction in the perception of pain (which is brought on by fight or flight)
There are many physical and neurological changes that come about during a traumatic experience that you might not even be aware of. But the single most powerful aspect of trauma is the sense of inescapability it brings about. In the long term, it can result in a feeling of total helplessness that is different from a reaction to any other challenge. You might feel too overwhelmed to cope in healthy ways. And if you don’t have the resources to deal with the experience, you might resort to less-than-optimal coping behaviors.
When we’re face to face with a major threat, our brains don’t function in normal ways, because we’re now in survival mode, and every last ounce of our fuel is spent on dealing with the perceived threat (whether real or imagined) until it’s gone. In many situations, this state goes away over time. But when we experience trauma, the impact can haunt us for years to come; even if we are no longer in the same circumstances, we might default to hypervigilance. This can affect our moods, our behaviors, our decisions, and our physical and mental health. We might experience flashbacks or the persistent feeling that we’re not safe. Memories we’d rather not think about could pop up unexpectedly, and we may even turn to self-destructive behaviors in our urge to deal with the pain and stress in the best way we know.
The brain has the capacity to form and reorganize neural pathways throughout our lives, for better or worse. This means that when we flood the brain with negative thoughts, behaviors, and stimuli, we increase the likelihood of their recurrence. At the same time, if we nourish the brain with positive thoughts, behaviors, and stimuli, we develop resilience and the ability to self-regulate when we’re overwhelmed by painful feelings and situations. Often, this can look like soul work—creating art, meditating, journaling, and connecting intentionally with ourselves. Even a pattern that may have once seemed fixed or permanent can be broken, and we can experience neurological as well as soul healing.