Managing Mental Trauma – Session 1 of 3
The Anatomy of Trauma in the Brain
Participants were introduced in a light, simple yet captivating manner to the brain and its role in processing trauma. It is central in the programming of stop situations but at the same time, it holds the key in breaking through.
We started with a short “ice breaker” game, all participants were asked to find many different objects and show them on camera. This caused everyone to relax, get energized, be more open.
Richly packed with information, the introduction began with the brain stem, which keeps all automatic, involuntary, and autonomic systems running, like blinking, swallowing, (in case of coma for example – breathing, digestion, sleep, blood circulation, etc.). It speeds up and slows down in response to immediate needs by the release of hormones that control these autonomic systems.
On top of the brain stem is the limbic system, which includes the Amygdala and Hippocampus. It compiles memories, and Self-Diagnosis, continuously monitors what is happening on the inside and outside, matches and links memories of previous experiences, sensations, smells, and feelings to whatever is being experienced at that moment (“the smell reminds me of…”).
The Limbic system produces behavioral and emotional reactions at lightning speed. Most responses it delivers are a reflection of the experiences of our lives and how we were programmed by unconsciously adapting to learned responses demonstrated by parents, tribe, community, society.
To demonstrate its role, and the immediacy of its response, participants were shown 19 different images –10 seconds each, and the first immediate responses were noted and then shared.
The key is that all these programmed responses can be retrained and reprogrammed when the limbic system is NOT stressed and is exposed to NEW experiences.
We paused for small group discussions, participants conveyed both personal and professional experiences, realizing how much of our attitudes and habits, even our politics and first responses to conflict and difficulty, are shaped by our parents, our social circles, cultural traditions.
We contrasted this with what we had consciously chosen to learn or to adopt. These actively chosen inner developments and growth decisions clearly seemed to contribute to higher functioning: for example learning to be more patient, managing anger or outbursts, making decisions about what we truly wish to devote our lives to, letting go of the past.
Threat or danger can be anything ranging from physical life threat, or danger to the ego, hurt pride, losing face or one’s position, stature in the community, or compromising one’s own or family honor.
So how does this work? The Amygdala – a very powerful component of the limbic system is the seat of fear, threat, and stress reactions. It learns by repetition, when we respond to events in the same way, it learns that this is the preferred “go-to” response. These are produced at great speed by the same system that has us running to the toilet and sometimes running for our life. They are superfast. In our habitually busy and stressful life, these will be the first reactions the limbic brain produces. The last thing you felt, determines the next thing you feel. All these trained responses can go back to our childhood, replayed during a lifetime.
So what happens in the Amygdala Hijack? When the Amygdala perceives a threat or danger, it takes control, holding the brain hostage. When experiencing an outburst, panic, violence, or a big argument with someone, it lingers in the system for hours, days, sometimes weeks or months after, compounded with a myriad of emotions, feelings, and physical discomfort (can lead to heart attacks and other ailments). As it replays itself, it gets printed repeatedly, creating a new trained response, making it easier to happen the next time. All these cause stop situations. During the Amygdala hijack, an astounding power is released into with great adrenaline rush, which needs to be processed in the system, by acting out or acting in.
Acting out – Turning the energy out onto others – jumpiness, outbursts of anger, violence, irritation, argument, verbal aggression, rioting, vandalizing. Acting in – Turning the energy in on oneself – shame, depression, guilt, self-harm, extreme risk-taking, reclusiveness, avoidance, drinking alone, binge eating.
Unfortunately, stop situations are “contagious”, as are the ‘trained responses’ printed in our limbic systems: they can be passed across to others, even across generations- maintaining biases, hatred, racism, gender cages, class distinction. The list goes on. It is not just about primary trauma, but all the stop situations that have become part of our unconsciously trained routine responses.
Playtime, laughter, breaking up patterns and known routines, create space for the rational brain, where new paradigms and values can be developed, reprogramming away from stress and anxiety causing reactivity.
But despite all this, resilience can be developed – by engaging the Hippocampus – the Amygdala’s counterpart in the Limbic brain which thrives on NEW experiences. Resilience is not automatic and is developed through breaking habits and patterns. Learning new things, playing a new game, doing things that you have never done before, to let your systems know you want things to be different, to change. (ideas? Eat something you never ate before, try an outfit you would never wear… ) this is referred to as a “circuit breaker” anything that breaks patterns or changes the mood you are in. (Which is one of the reasons for the ice breaker at the start of the session). Distinct from the Amygdala, the Hippocampus is stimulated by fresh experiences, new learning, responds well to moments in the unknown. Circuit breakers rebalance the Limbic system, making us more inclined to respond to experiences that broaden perspectives, more open to developing the Rational Brain – key to our resilience
It requires serious reflective work to be effective, but it can be done!
The session ended with a poignant question
do you actually want to build resilience?
If so, it takes time, but it will be transformative and can be instrumental to the passing on human values and break the cycle of stop situations for the generations to come.