I know I am safe now. Why can't I just get over it?
In many ways, the brain is like the body in that we are designed to move toward healing. If you cut your hand on a thorn, if you remove the thorn and clean the wound, your body is designed to heal that wound. Similarly, it may be that you have an argument with a friend which may feel deeply upsetting, but you go to sleep on it and in the morning you have a new perspective on it. Overnight, you have processed what has happened and it is now stored adaptively. You can make the decision as to what to do next with this disagreement, but it doesn’t upset you anymore. So why do some experiences stay with us?
In simple terms, when thinking about trauma, we think of three areas of the brain. We think about the frontal lobe which is responsible for cognitive processing or the “thinking” part. We are just observing things and can make logical and rational decisions. This is related to optimal functioning. The second part is the amygdala. When this is engaged, if we were driving and we are approaching an amber light, the amygdala would come online and we would take in our surroundings in a different way. We might be checking our mirrors to see that other cars are aware that we are slowing and that they are as well. We are essentially assessing for danger. If all goes well, and there isn’t anything wrong, the amygdala goes back offline because the assessment is that there isn’t any danger. The third part is the back part of the brain which is fight/flight/freeze. When this part engages, the frontal lobe is turned off. There is a good reason for this as historically, we didn’t have time to assess what to do if a lion is going to attack us, our back brain simply reacts.
So what happens if things go wrong? Let’s say that we are driving our car and we are approaching that amber light. Everything is lovely, there is a summer breeze, the radio is playing your favorite song and then someone crashes into you from behind. The air bags deploy, the car is smashed up and you have some injuries but you have survived. When a perceived threat or actual trauma occurs, one of the things the amygdala does is take inventory of all of our sensory experiences during this experience. So the amygdala will record the sights, the sounds, the tastes, the touch and the smell from the experience. In the future, to keep us safe, unless that experience has been either adaptively stored or reprocessed, if we experience any one of those sensations, the amygdala will tell the body there is a threat and we are in danger which triggers the fight/flight/freeze response. Maybe a couple of years later, you are travelling by car to see relatives and that old favorite song comes on the radio. Your heart starts to pound and you maybe aren’t even sure why.
Trauma has its own neural network which is different to our long or short memories. They can’t be filed appropriately. When one of these senses are triggered, the amygdala tells the brain to go into fight/flight/freeze because we were hurt last time this was experienced. This is why sometimes clients come to therapy because they know cognitively that they are safe, but they are experiencing fight/flight/freeze.
If you recognise this happening to you, please get in touch for an initial consultation to discuss how we may be able to work together to resolve this.