Even though this article is about 'Trauma' please don't think it won't be relevant to me.... Trauma can be a small 't' and a big 'T'. I promise you that what you'll read here is definitely relevant to you!
A really simple way of understanding what happens to the brain during trauma is that our front brains turn off and our back brains turn on.
When our brain’s ‘smoke alarm’ detects a threat (amygdala), it sends a split-second signal to the hypothalamus to sound the siren. The hypothalamus then starts a cascade of chemical responses in the brain and body:
adrenaline speeds up the heartrate to increase availability of oxygen and nutrients to muscles, ready for flee or fight fight or flee
noradrenaline is released in the brain to help it focus and react quickly
Blood pressure increases, so that essential blood supplies reach their destination as quickly as possible
Blood supply is diverted away from non-urgent activities such as digestion and reproduction
Immune system is temporarily boosted, in order to respond quickly to a potential injury
fuel supplies are maximised in the bloodstream.
The body goes into a state of gearing itself up to defend itself, and it all happens unconsciously, before we even get a chance to consciously notice and think about the threat. This is a really important part of survival. We have to act in a split second, so the thinking, rational planning ‘front brain goes offline, while the automatic, instinctive, emotional ‘back brain’ takes charge. Back brain on – front brain off.
Have you ever noticed times when your ability to speak goes offline? This may be because a part of your front brain has switched off (‘dictionary’, Broca’s area). Other parts of the front brain affected are:
The ‘timekeeper’, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain, along with many other functions, keeps our sense of ourselves in time and space. That’s why time seems to slow down or our life ‘flashes’ before our eyes
The ‘watchtower’, the medial prefrontal cortex. This is the planning, overseeing, decision-making, wise part of our brain. With this offline, we struggle to plan and make decisions, and as it talks to the body through our ‘internal CCTV’, the insula, we can also have difficulty feeling connected to our body (an ‘out of body experience’).
The‘librarian’ or ‘context stamp’, the hippocampus. Technically part of the limbic system rather than the front brain, the hippocampus plays a leading role in memory encoding and retrieval and acts as a kind of special adviser to the watchtower. With the hippocampus offline, memories are often not stored coherently and so traumatic memories are often disjointed, lacking context, or incomplete.
The cook’, the thalamus. Although again technically not part of the front brain, the thalamus may switch off during trauma: incoming data from our environment and senses, which is normally mixed together by the ‘cook’ at the point of entry before being sent to other parts of the brain, remain as raw ingredients rather than a complete autobiographical ‘soup’. This is the precursor to dissociation – information entering the brain not being ‘associated’ in the first place.
How can you bring your brain back online?
The way to bring your brain back online is to do some physical things to get your brain to realise that it is ok, that there is no actual threat. Here are the ways you can do it:
Ground yourself back in your body. You can do this by drinking a drink, stretching, moving your body, connecting in with your breath, looking around and naming objects in the room. Notice your feet on the floor, I mean really notice them. Get your brain to focus in on how the skin at the bottom of your feet touches the floor. This will wake up your front brain to realise it is ok!
Slow and steady breathing is another way to bring the brain back online.
Changing your posture to one of being open and strong in standing can also really help!
Activating the senses in any way is another way to wake up the front brain – scents, drinks, engaging in what you’re looking at.
Doing menial tasks such as puzzles, washing up etc can also be good.
This article is a shorter version of this amazing article written by Carolyn Spring, a trauma survivor and trainer who has written several books and delivers training to counsellors on trauma-informed practice. I highly recommend reading her full article on trauma, flashbacks and the brain.