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June 16, 2020

Trauma

In our lives we will all experience events that could be considered traumatic. In fact, there is a case to argue that we are the most traumatised generation in history.

Our parents and grandparents did indeed live through some very turbulent times but they had to deal with what was in front of them in real time. We are exposed to trauma all the time on the news, in social media, in the films we watch. How many of us get nervous walking down a dimly lit street on our own, or crossing the car park at night? Most of us have never experienced an attack but we have that learned response

There are many ways to look at trauma. One good indicator is when someone cannot differentiate between FEELING safe and BEING safe.  Sitting in your home reading a book you probably ARE safe, but you may not feel it. Traumatised people rarely if ever feel safe.

How do we record a trauma?

We have 2 types of memory: Explicit and Implicit.

Can you recall learning to ride a bike? Maybe you remember who helped you, what colour your bike was etc – those are explicit or narrative memories – you can intentionally recall the experience and describe it.

When you get one bike now and ride your body just does it – that your implicit memory – in this case muscle memory

In trauma the part of the brain that stores explicit memory doesn’t function, so we store the implicit memories in the muscles and sensory fragments along with the terror registered in the amygdala which is the part of the brain best known for processing fear.


The Science – for anyone interested

MRI scans of people in a relaxed regulated state show that the cortex (your grey matter) is all lit up and functioning well. However, when the same scan is done of people who live in a state of perceived threat (high stress) we see that the brain stem (basic survival functions) is lit up.

Bessel Van Der Kolk (Dutch psychiatrist, author and educator whose research has been in the area of post-traumatic stress) talks about the mowhawk -the midline brain structures (prefrontal cortex, gyrus, occipital lobe). These have all gone dark in the second scan showing they are not active, yet these are the parts of our brain that give us self-awareness so when all this shuts down in trauma our attention focuses on environment. 

Broca’s area which is nearby is also affected so our speech is inhibited making it even more difficult to talk about trauma.

Robert Scaer (M.D.) describes trauma as a corruption of memory.

Neuro imaging of the brains of people suffering from PTSD show that 

The most replicated structural finding is hippocampal volume reduction, which may limit the proper evaluation and categorisation of experience. Replicated localised functional changes include increased activation of the amygdala after symptom provocation (which may reflect its role in emotional memory) and decreased activity of Broca's area at the same time (which may explain the difficulty patients have in labelling their experiences).” 

Neuroimaging Findings in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Systematic Review.  Aug 2002. Alastair M Hull

The hippocampus is a structure in the brain that is important in the storage of declarative memory.

This 60 second video shows you these parts of the brain. The hippocampus and amygdala are part of the limbic system or emotional brain.


To explain all this in more human terms: I have had 3 bad knee accidents in my life. I can tell you when they happened and what I was doing just before them but each accident and the immediate aftermath (ambulance, hospital etc) the details are pretty much absent or sketchy. So, I do not have a narrative memory of those events.

These sensory and physiological memories can intrude into the present and we call them flashbacks, nightmares, ticks and twitches. Not everyone who is traumatised has flashbacks, but flashbacks are our brains trying to heal. 

Flashbacks can also be emotional – for example a fairly simple event (dropping a plate) or someone’s words or tone of voice can produce a disproportionate reaction – rage, tears, energy dropping and the person affected has no idea what the trigger was.

The treatment of trauma has evolved over the years and had got to a much better place now so if you think you may be suffering from trauma(s) in your life there is no need to suffer alone from the affects any longer. A single traumatic event for a person who had a secure upbringing and was fairly well emotionally regulated before the event can be resolved quite quickly (1 -3 sessions with a trauma trained therapist).

For people with a lot of childhood trauma or who has multiple traumas it can take a little or a lot longer.

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Please note that I am not a medical doctor. I do not diagnose or prescribe and I cannot advise on medication that is prescribed by your GP or the hospital.
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