Trauma and The Brain, Part 1

Before I begin, I want to acknowledge that the following information was gleaned from researchers and practitioners in the field who presented at the 5th annual Developmental Trauma Conference at CALO — Change Academy at Lake of the Ozarks — on Tuesday June 23rd and Wednesday June 24th 2015. Speakers included Joseph Spinazzola, PhD from Justice Resource Institute in Massachusetts, Steve Sawyer from New Visions Wilderness, and Rob Gent, and Landon Kirk from CALO. The information is based on research that includes brain mapping and longitudinal studies to study the effects of trauma and stress on our neurological functions and emotional responses.  My goal is to make this information accessible to the parents and caregivers of individuals who suffer from trauma as well as to those individuals.  A special thank you to the team at CALO who do this good work every day and who put together this conference every year.

To simplify, the centers of the brain that regulate emotion developed first to protect human beings.  We learned early on in human evolution to tune into danger and remain hypervigilant so that we could protect our lives and the lives of our fellow beings.  When danger passes, however, we can take part in other things, particularly more complex problem solving and creative pursuits.  One often hears these days about the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for higher level thinking and learning.  The higher level skill set in the prefrontal cortex is as important as our hypervigilant skill set (our parasympathetic network), but it is hard to access the higher level thinking when one is frightened, hyper-alert to danger, or otherwise fighting for survival.  That is how our brains evolved.

What we know about trauma is that one gets stuck in hypervigilant mode.  Thus, “thinking” kind of goes out the window.  We have all seen someone in distress, and people around them might say “calm down” or “think about what you’re doing” when in fact those are two things that person cannot do in the moment.  The person who is not suffering trauma will, after a moment or two, calm down because their body can and will respond quickly to self-regulation.  Maybe without thinking that person begins breathing steadily, which is the most effective method by which to bring down one’s internal danger barometer.  Some folks will start counting to ten.  Some will sit down and slowly, calmly, regain their composure.  A person in a trauma cycle, on the other hand, will not.

So what is trauma?  Most people think of a traumatic event, such as a tornado whipping through one’s town and destroying homes and/or lives, or a war, or an act of violence upon the self such as a robbery–these are legitimate situations that can impact an individual.  Some will find it harder than others to overcome the trauma.  What we do know now is that the longer the individual suffers the situation, the harder it is to self-regulate because one remains in hypervigilant mode.  Think of a soldier who repeatedly goes into battle, or a spouse who suffers emotional or physical abuse at the hands of another spouse.  This type of trauma is characterized by re-experiencing the event(s), there is avoidance or numbing, and there is increased arousal.  We often think of these individuals as “walking wounded”.  But that is not the only thing that defines trauma.

Research now indicates that there is something known as Developmental trauma.  This is complex, and often involves an amalgam of problems over a longer span of time and is also comorbid with other disorders.  The more enduring the trauma, the more intense it is over the span of a lifetime.  That is, it impacts both immediate and long term outcomes for the individual.  Even if a child works through complex childhood trauma for the most part, it can come back to haunt that individual if they suffer additional trauma as an adult.  It is our limbic system that encodes our emotions, processes information, and activates our senses for survival.  If one becomes overwhelmed, things fragment and get confused.  And the more deeply entrenched our traumatic “memory” the harder it is to return to a state of self-regulation–to “think” and respond appropriately.

For a child with complex trauma, the most common signs or problems include affect dysregulation (can’t maintain an even keel emotionally), poor impulse control (act without thinking), negative self-image (I am not worthy), poor concentration, and increased aggression.  This creates functional impairment and a view that the world is unsafe, others can’t be trusted, and also that they are unable to function as demanded (I can’t).  Problems are usually more noticeable at home, because school is often more structured, predictable, and relationships with teachers often less emotionally loaded.  There is often a feeling that “I can hide” at school.  Of course, not all children with complex trauma do well in school.

It is important to recognize that these children are not always “victims” of severe abuse at home.  In fact, research indicates that some children suffer from caregiver separation or absence rather than because of the presence of violence/abuse.  [Think of children who live their early lives in orphanages in which they receive little to no human touch or affection.]  At present, this research is ongoing, but there is a belief that relationships are paramount to the extent to which the trauma is increased or decreased over time.  What is certain, however, is that the child with complex trauma develops maladaptive self-soothing, such as head banging, and emotional regulation is increasingly disturbed over time.  Thus, appropriate treatment as early as possible is imperative.  And it must be grounded in trauma informed and trauma centered practices.  All the talk therapy in the world will not help such a child!

In Part 2, I will talk more about perception and the general approach to healing. Stay tuned!

Trauma and The Brain, Part 1