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  • Writer's pictureJordan Zipkin, LMFT

Your Brain on Trauma

Trauma hijacks the brain, but only with the best intentions: to ensure our survival. Imagine the following scenario: you are walking by a canal and an alligator walks towards you. You don’t have time to think; you need to act.

Three parts of your brain need to swiftly work to ensure your immediate action: the thinking center (prefrontal cortex), emotion regulation center (anterior cingulate cortex), and the fear center (amygdala).

Specifically, the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex are inhibited, while the amygdala is overactivated. This means that in a traumatic experience, our thinking and control of our emotions substantially decreases, while our experience of fear dramatically increases.

While these actions by our brain aid us in the traumatic situation, it unfortunately now becomes considerably easier for them to act in similar ways under the wrong circumstances, ones in which there are no threats to survival.

The fear center, or amygdala, is particularly implicated in this problem.

This part of the brain is primarily responsible for using our senses to evaluate incoming information to determine if there is an impending threat. When we endure trauma, the details experienced by our senses, such as things we saw and smelled at that time, become imprinted in our brain, so that we know what details to be cautious of and avoid in the future.

Oftentimes, however, our brains broadly generalize details from traumatic events.

For instance, perhaps we suffered a car accident and we recall seeing a bright red stop light in this experience. Later, our brain could inappropriately cause us to fear, and have subsequent traumatic responses, to other, albeit harmless, red objects.

Regardless of the painful experiences we endure, we can change our brains, so we can once again live happy and fulfilling lives. Here are some ways to do it:

  • Through therapy, you can work towards understanding the trauma and diminish the emotional affect it holds over you.

  • Learn to notice your body’s responses to triggering experiences, such as feeling tension in your chest or jaw. This increased awareness can help you catch the affect of trauma before it controls you.

  • Spend 5 minutes 2x/day rocking back and forth, while actively noting the affect such soothing action has on your body.

  • Make a playlist of some of your favorite relaxing music and listen to these songs for several minutes/day.

  • Exercise for 15-20 minutes/day for at least 2-3 days/wk. This increases serotonin and dopamine in the brain (neurotransmitters that foster relaxation and happiness).

If you have any questions about trauma or how to recover after a traumatic experience, I'd be happy to speak with you.

If you would like to schedule your first session, call me at 954-391-5305 or for more information about my services, read my bio here.


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