During the course of our lives as many as 50% of us will experience at least one or more traumatic events that can leave a significant negative impact on our mental health!
We usually think of traumatic events being disasters such as a fire, a serious accident or violent assaults like rape, assault or abuse. However, traumatic events can also be part of normal life transitions such as childbirth and death of a loved one. Other events may include experiencing serious illnesses like cancer on ourselves or on a family member, being admitted for a medical emergency, seeing our child seriously ill or having a baby admitted to Neonatal Intensive care and many other situations.
Our reactions to trauma can vary widely from person to person, and not everyone will develop long-term difficulties, however some of us may develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). If you or someone close to you is struggling to cope after a difficult event, it is important to know that trauma can actually cause changes in the way our brain works and eventually even in our brain itself. In this article I would like to give information about what happens to our brains when we experience trauma and how to help ourselves heal.
So what happens to our brains when there is trauma?
1. Our Thinking Center is underactivated:
This means that we may notice difficulties concentrating, we may become increasingly distracted and may feel that we can’t think clearly.
2. The Emotion Regulation Center is underactivated
As survivors of trauma we may also feel incapable of managing our emotions. For example, a minor fright, even a joke, may give us a rapid heart rate that takes long to settle, we may find it hard to let go of minor annoyances or to calm down and feel better. We may also have outbursts of anger that are sudden and are not proportionate to the problem at hand. This is in large part due to a weakened emotion regulation center.
3. The Fear Center is overactivated.
This last change leads us to experience chronic stress, vigilance (always expecting the worst), fear and irritation. We may also have difficulty to feel safe even in situations where we are safe and difficulty sleeping. This can be particularly scary since we may experience flashbacks, intrusive thoughts or nightmares that may even be recurrent.
We should not feel like we have to cope with this struggle alone
Counsellors and therapists are especially trained to create the conditions that:
1. Create a safe and supportive environment where the brain becomes more open to change;
2. Express difficult emotions in a safe place and help restore and reactivate different parts of the brain to help clients regulate their emotions and connect them with their reasoning skills;
3. Offer clients the right balance between support and challenge to help clients find the best solutions and resolution to their problems because there is no such thing as a one size fits all.
Many counsellors and therapists are trained to help people to bounce back and resolve the anxieties, fears, nightmares, panic attacks and other symptoms that traumatic experiences tend to cause. Even for experiences that have happened long in your past, there are some techniques that can rewire your brain for recovery. Some specialized interventions are trauma-informed Mindfulness, Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, Relaxation techniques, Creative Expression techniques including play, drama, art and dance amongst others.
There are also a number of alternative therapies that people have reported as helpful together with counseling or alone. These include Yoga, Journal writing and forming part of Community activities where we attune to others such as being part of a choir or a theatrical group.
The most important thing is to understand that what is happening to you is actually a very common reaction and that you’re not crazy, irreversibly damaged, or a bad person.
The good news is that although a traumatized brain functions differently as a result of traumatic events, it can also change in response to your future experiences. Our brain is adaptable and we can change it!