The brain on trauma.

There are many events that can be classed as trauma: death, divorce, serious illness, war and abuse.  Some events can be ongoing and complex and some events may be a single occurrence.  People respond to traumatic events in different ways.  Shock and denial at the early stages can result in a numbness.  Once this feeling has passed, responses to the trauma can include: irritability, anxiety and depression, flashbacks, nervousness, difficulty concentrating and remembering things, insomnia and changes in appetite.  Sometimes a condition called PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) can occur.  This is when the body has physical and emotional stress responses to the memory of the event or events.

People with trauma often do not understand what is happening to them.  Flashbacks, nightmares, racing heart and confusion can make people feel that they don’t know themselves anymore.  People will isolate themselves, become anxious and depressed and struggle to go about their everyday lives.  Relationships can suffer as others may not understand what is happening.  The problem is that a part of the brain believes that the trauma has not yet passed and that there are threats everywhere in everyday lives.

 Knowing what is happening to you can help with dealing with PTSD.  Knowing that everything that is occurring is normal, is also helpful.  Trauma affects different parts of the brain.  Three areas in particular are affected; the pre-frontal cortex (PCC), the amygdala, and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC)  In brief, the PCC is responsible for thinking, logic, problem solving, planning and empathy.  The amygdala is known as the fear centre and this lies beneath consciousness.  It is responsible for  all incoming information  and asks the important question, “Is this a threat?” When it does perceive a threat then the fear response is activated.  The ACC is the emotion regulation centre and is responsible for doing just that; regulating emotion.

In a traumatised brain the amygdala (the fear centre) is overactivated; it is over firing so that threat is perceived almost everywhere.  This explains why a traumatised person will jump at the slightest thing and will sense danger where there is none.  This over firing puts people into a state of constant vigilance.  The amygdala will respond quickly when a threat is detected by putting us into the ‘flight, flight, freeze’ response.  The body will be flooded by hormones such as adrenalin, norepinephrine your experienceand cortisol to ‘ramp up’ the body to go into fight or flight.  People may become irritable, nervous and have trouble calming down and sleeping.

As well as this, the pre-frontal cortex (the thinking centre) is under activated.  This explains people being unable to ‘think clearly’, concentrate or think rationally.  Added to this, a person who has experienced trauma will have trouble regulating their emotions because their emotion centre, the anterior cingulate cortex, has become under activated. 

How can counselling help?

There are many ways in which a therapist will help with trauma.  People vary in their responses to trauma and no two people will respond to a traumatic event in the same way.  Talk therapy can help go towards some ways in helping as well as understanding.  A therapist will validate your experience and help you to make sense of what has happened.  Counselling can allow the trauma to be brought out into the light instead of the experience being locked away deep inside of you. People can explore their thoughts, beliefs and emotions surrounding the trauma.  As trauma is not simply about what happened to you but also the meaning that you assigned to the experience a counsellor can offer help to examine that meaning and how it has affected your sense of self and the world around you.  During the trauma, and afterwards, your body will have locked away the sensations and emotions if felt during the experience. A therapist can help you to unlock those sensations so that they are no longer haunting you.  Much of what occurs with a therapist is about beginning to get back in touch with the sensations in your body and beginning to get to know yourself again.

If you are struggling with trauma and are wishing to understand more know that you are not alone.  A therapist can help you begin to make sense of everything so that you can learn tools to cope and to move forward in your life. 

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