Your Brain on Trauma

WIN_20180508_11_48_41_ProThe human brain is so very complex.  One tiny change can make a tremendous difference, much like a computer.  For example, when I lived in Ireland, I worked for a company that utilized a rather complex software program to manage revenue from various business sectors.  In this system, it was important to right click and select paste rather than use “ctrl V”.  After years of training my brain to use “ctrl V” it seemed near impossible to remember to right click and select paste.

I was a serious nightmare for our IT department in the UK.  When a user used “ctrl V” they would lose an important function in the program which could only be restored by calling over to the team in the UK.  No.  This is not a story about being the annoying employee who called for help all the time, though I am sure that was also the case.  Whenever I used “ctrl V”, I was corrupting the database’s data.  Where?  That’s a good question!  We did not know exactly where.  Reports would be generated, and the numbers would be wrong.  The client would ask why numbers did not match.  Other reporting problems would crop up.  My little mistake created big problems due to the ripple effect of one little command.

That can also be true for our brains when a traumatic event happens, especially if there is a series of small traumatic events.  The effects of less intense traumatic experiences may add up much like my continued use of “ctrl V”.  Despite the size of the traumatic experience or its frequency, the ripple effect in our brains is unknown.  Studies have shown that our resiliency to traumatic experiences is unpredictable, and I assume this may be attributed to the complex functioning of our brains.  Nonetheless, trauma has an effect even if it cannot be predicted.

Another point my database example illustrates is how our brains often wire themselves to a specific behavior pattern that can be difficult to change without intentional effort.  I often refer to this as “the cattle path” quality of the well-known neuroscience phrase “fire together, wire together”.  Much like a cattle path groove that becomes deep and well defined, my brain had strongly mapped the behavior to use “ctrl V”.  The behavior was second nature.  Before I even thought about what I was doing I was using the function, almost like watching myself select the wrong answer.  The embarrassment of calling over to the UK became quite shaming.  I had to work hard to change my automatic response to transferring data.

WIN_20180508_11_49_08_ProThis is how our brain is on trauma!  With repeated trauma, like childhood abuse, our brain maps a strong response to these incidences.  The response can be over excitement of our amygdala (panic center of the brain: fight, flight, or freeze) or under activation of our amygdala that prevents us from keeping ourselves safe.  These maladaptive paths become so strong it is like the deep cattle paths where grass becomes so trampled all you can see now is a groove of dirt.  Cows will not make a new path without the right incentive, bringing their awareness to fresh grass to eat.  Our brains are the same way when healing from trauma.

Telling someone to stop doing whatever automatic response their brain engages in is not helpful.  It does not change the mapping of the brain, and in some cases strengthens the maladaptive mapping.  One of the first things I do with clients who have a significant trauma history is to train, or re-train, their brains what it is like to be relaxed and feel safe.  It is excessively repetitive for a reason.  During the process, client’s may not feel a change.  After several months they notice their thinking is different or their response time to triggers in their life has lengthened so they have more time to decide on a different response.  Sometimes, a few months pass and a client is able to have an “a-ha!” moment they would not be able to experience during their first session.  Fight, flight, or freeze responses would have been too intense to hear or experience an alternate perspective.  After the amygdala has been trained to be calmer, healing work can begin.  The therapeutic work becomes more efficient after a healthy foundation has been established. New wiring.  Productive wiring.

Do you need new wiring?  Do you know someone who could benefit from new wiring?  If you live in the St. Louis Metropolitan area, I would love to help, even if that means helping you find another therapist to walk your journey with you.

Illustration: Changing Your Wiring


The Yarn Connection for Grief & Trauma

For this activity you will need a few supplies that you can pick up at your local all-in-one market or craft store.  You will need:

  1. Yarn: red, yellow, blue, green, white, black, grey, purple, orangeWIN_20180305_14_38_25_Pro
  2. Small Styrofoam ball
  3. Strong glue
  4. Duct tape (optional)
  5. Paint (optional)

If you choose to use paint, you will need to paint the Styrofoam ball first and give it plenty of time to dry.  Next, you will cut at least six feet of each color of yarn and glue one end to the Styrofoam ball once the paint dries.  If the glue does not stick well to your ball and yarn, you can use strips of duct tape to secure the yarn to the Styrofoam ball.  If you choose not to paint your Styrofoam ball, you could select duct tape in a color that represents your most significant grief or trauma event and use that to wrap the yarn to your Styrofoam ball.  After the yarn is properly secured, wind your yarn around the Styrofoam ball until all the yarn is wrapped around the ball.  Do NOT cut the ends to match up in length.  Leave the ends however they end up.WIN_20180305_14_50_51_Pro

Look at your ball of yarn.  What do you notice?

Start with the longest piece of yarn and slowly begin unwrapping it.  What color does it run into?  Find the start of the second string and start unraveling it.  What does that color run into?  Find the start of the third string.  What does it run into?  Keep doing this until you have completely unraveled the ball of yarn.

Notice how all the colors run into each other as you unravel the ball of yarn.WIN_20180306_13_17_36_Pro

What if I told you the colors are as follows:

Red = anger

Yellow = joy

Blue = sadness

Green = growth

White = peace

Black = fear

Grey = frustration

Purple = anxiety

Orange = confusion

Pink = love


Now what do you think of your ball of yarn?

WIN_20180306_13_18_21_ProAs we deal with grief and other traumatic events, our emotional experience is much like this ball of yarn.  We do not simply feel sad and depressed.  We do not feel sad and depressed followed by unending joy.  We vacillate between several positive and unpleasant emotions for quite some time before making peace with our traumatic circumstance.

Are you holding the ball at the middle of your yarn ball?  That Styrofoam ball represents the incident that created such an emotional experience for you.  Death of a loved one.  Abuse.  Car accident.  Financial distress.WIN_20180306_13_19_19_Pro

If you are untangling your ball of yarn and it gets knotted up, reach out for help.  A caring professional is available to help you untangle your knotted ball of yarn.  Some tasks, like untangling yarn, are better achieve with the help of others.  The same is true for grief and trauma.