Our body is such a fascinating working unit. Let’s consider for example how it deals with complex trauma, which entails long-term, chronic trauma. This is not a trauma that is just acute in nature, but it has become a way of life. There are also dynamics that impact complex trauma, such as age, the relationship to the abuser, and the use of love and violence. In understanding the depth of trauma, it is important to talk about the brain and neurophysiology of our body.
When we respond to trauma/stress our bodies produce certain excitatory neurotransmitters that function in a way that gives our bodies energy to get out of the situation. This response is due to the sympathetic system which functions as our ‘fight or flight’ system. After stress or trauma, the parasympathetic system kicks in and releases calming hormones or inhibitory neurotransmitters that allow our body to rest. This is what creates homeostasis or balance in our body. When our body is chronically under stress, our parasympathetic system becomes tired out and drained, and eventually is unable to keep up with our sympathetic response. This result can have a long-term impact on our overall health and can lead down the path of autoimmune diseases.
The way our brain is programmed for survival is incredible. Our brain stores away memories that are too intense for us to uncover. This fragmenting is a programmed protective function that is used to help us survive circumstances that would otherwise be too overwhelming to process. This adaptation to trauma can shut down part of the brain that processes emotions and visceral feelings. There was a study done by Ruth Lanius MD, that tried to uncover what happened in the brain of trauma survivors when they were not thinking about the past. She did a brain scan on “normal” individuals and those who struggled with chronic PTSD. The findings were that there was almost no activation of the medial prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate, parietal cortex, in trauma survivors. And the insula did not light up at all. The area that showed slight activation was the posterior cingulate. What this means was there was no activation of the self-sensing areas of the brain, the part that did slightly light up was that which is responsible for basic orientation in space. The conclusion,
“what we witnessed here was a tragic adaptation: In an effort to shut off terrifying sensations, they also deadened their capacity to feel fully alive.” (Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD).
Complex trauma can affect someone every minute of every day. It has a way of sabotaging us. This is because our brain stem is constantly firing that we are in danger, which is also known as a hypervigilant state. Even though cognitively we can reason that we are safe, our body does not understand this. Our body holds onto the cellular memory of trauma. The brain stem does not understand time or logic. Its primary function is to alert us to danger and keep us alive. Because it functions as a smoke detector, it will keep alerting us to danger until our body can tangibly feel safe. In understanding complex trauma, it is important to remember that this trauma left an imprint in your body. When this trauma was repetitive, this imprint left a clear pathway for your body to respond to any senses coming into the body. This imprint is experienced in the present as physical reactions to the senses, which is also known as triggers. Triggers can be anything that is felt through your senses (sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing). The senses are typically filtered through the thalamus and then sent to the cortex to be processed. The olfactory sense, which is smell, actually goes straight to the limbic system. This is why smell is so important. These senses can sabotage us at any moment of any day. It is our present physical reminder of our past. Here is a great quote that I came across by Bessel Van Der Kolk, who is the founder and medical director of the Trauma Center in Massachusetts regarding trauma.
“The essence of trauma is that it is overwhelming, unbelievable, and unbearable. Each patient demands that we suspend our sense of what is normal and accept that we are dealing with a dual reality: the reality of a relatively secure and predictable present that lives side by side with a ruinous ever-present past.”
The beauty of our brain is that it really is organic. What I mean by organic is that it can heal. It has neuroplasticity. Scientific discovery has demonstrated that we can actually create new neuropathways to our brain. These are the pathways that information gets channeled through to alert us when danger is present. Through these new pathways we can begin to access the executive functions of our brain, rather than going straight to our limbic system. I can personally attest to our body’s capacity to heal as I have personally experienced much trauma in my life. We will always carry those scars, but we can find healing for our mind, body, and soul. We have to remember that we are all unique individuals. We cannot just cookie cutter a path of healing from complex trauma. There are certain principles or stages we must go through, but there is no 5 step program. Understanding the brain and all the intricacies of how our body functions helps us to understand one another on a deeper level, which can help fulfill our desire to be loved and known.
“We all want to live in a world that is safe, manageable, and predictable, and victims remind us that this is not always the case. In order to understand trauma, we have to overcome our natural reluctance to confront that reality and cultivate the courage to listen to the testimonies of survivors.” (Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD)
Rebekah Meyers is the co-founder of United1Front. Passion and experience drives Rebekah towards empowering people to make a difference. She is a registered nurse and a core specialist in the Masgutova neuro sensory motor reflex integration. She has undergone extensive holistic training from Finding Freedom and TCU under Dr. Karyn Purvis. She has spent time locally, nationally, and internationally bringing hope and restoration to all those she meets. She very much enjoys (possibly survives off of) coffee and meaningful conversations.