Transformational trauma vs the mind, brain and body

Prioritising sound mental health is a lifestyle that I value daily. As an ever-learning student of mindfulness (essentially the practice of building awareness of your own thoughts and emotions, addressing them rather than immediately reacting to them), I am always keen to help both myself and others.

With the present mental health crisis and the toxic culture to ignore how we feel, earlier this year I read a brilliant book by the Dutch psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, titled ‘The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain, and Body in the Transformation of Trauma’. I learned so much useful knowledge from this read, that I decided to use what I learned about trauma, its effects, and therapies for toxic stress, along with my practical knowledge to teach my team. Even if one person took something away from my presentation, I see it as a success!

What actually is trauma? 

While it is common to think trauma only relates to war, abuse or rape, trauma can in fact come from anything that is out of your control. It is a very normal response to abnormal events. Whether we realise it or not, we have all experienced some form of trauma, especially recently with the overwhelming abnormality of a global pandemic and lockdown.

Your three brains

Your brain is brilliantly complex and intelligent. It consists of 3 parts:

  1. The reptilian brain, which maintains basic bodily functions and acts instinctively
  2. The mammal brain/limbic system, also acts instinctively but deals with pain, pleasure, and emotions. It is the feeling part of the brain
  3. The neocortex, which is where logic, planning, order, and imagination take place

While the neocortex is conscious, the reptilian and mammal parts of the brain are primitive. When we react to traumatic events, our brain can either respond emotionally with the mammal brain or rationally with the neocortex.

The mammal brain hosts 2 important smaller parts of the brain, called the amygdala and the hippocampus.

– The amygdala has only one job, to sound the alarm when in danger. In a matter of survival, this primitive part of the brain takes control and responds with 3 possible paths for survival: fight, flight, or freeze.

– Regularly, the hippocampus has the role of storing memories, but in moments of danger, it stops doing its job, making it difficult to gather evidence from trauma victims. Instead, the hippocampus switches its role to pump cortisol. This stress hormone acts as a painkiller, allowing the victim to focus on survival – an intelligent evolutionary safety mechanism.

The damaged mind

Through short-term trauma, damage can take place in the form of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). If the process happens repeatedly, such as in domestic abuse victims, complex PTSD can form. When this occurs, the amygdala’s signal gets jammed from constant stimulation. For victims, memories are stuck in the mammal brain, so a subtle trigger can set off the alarm such as smell, sound, or sensation. Imagine casually walking down the street, when a specific smell sets off your amygdala’s alarm, forcing you into fighting for survival. This can create a hostile lifestyle that can cause difficulty in feeling present and lacking trust in a world that is not likely to ever seem safe again.

Knowingly, we feel benefits from physical activity like working out, due to the release of feel-good chemicals serotonin and dopamine. Physical sensations can also help regulate feelings, similar to the first moment someone feeds us when we’re hungry or covers us when we’re cold. If no one has ever rushed to help for a victim, they may naturally discover alternative ways of self-care – experimenting with instant relief through drugs, cutting, or binge eating. These also provide feel-good chemicals but are only a short-term solution.

Agency and your body

The feeling of being in charge of your own life, or Agency, starts with awareness of our sensory body. The more awareness, the more potential to take charge of our lives.

This can follow 2 simple steps:

  1. Knowing what we feel
  2. Know why we feel this way

This process of internal observation is the key to understanding ourselves better. If we know our triggers and fixes, we can treat situations from a different perspective. This practice is also known as mindfulness, or as I like to call, a superpower!

By avoiding becoming familiar with and befriending the sensations in their bodies, victims cannot start this path to recovery. Victims with constant fear live within tense and defensive bodies, constantly on edge. Similarly, chronic anger can cause muscle tension and spasms.

Stretch and breathe

How can we resolve this? Prescription drugs supposedly help, but they run the risk of blunting sensations. They don’t give you the tools to deal with distressing physical reactions.

What can help is yoga – the simple act of learning to inhabit your body through asanas (postures) and pranayama’s (stretches). Yoga is all about looking inward and listening to your body. By focusing your attention on the breath and the sensations felt in every posture or stretch, we can begin to listen and notice the connections between your emotions and your body. We can experiment with certain positions designed for tension release of specific muscles. Yoga can allow you to express feelings easier because you can recognise them easier.

Follow my fingers

From the many different types of therapy for trauma, one that I’ve found the most interesting in my research is EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing). This fairly new type of therapy opens up a traumatic experience, forcing the victim to address it.

A therapist will ask the victim to activate the traumatic memory from their long-term memory, this will now move to their short-term memory. Focusing on the event, the therapist will move their fingers in rapid back and forth motions, asking the victim to follow them. By keeping the memory in their mind and tracking the therapist’s fingers at the same time, the brain processes so much information all at once, that the image becomes blurred and loses its emotional charge. Furthermore, when an image lessens, it becomes easier to think differently about the experience.

Therapy isn’t just for the victims. Everyone should seek some form of it, whether you’re mentally healthy or struggling, anyone can benefit from expressing themselves. The trick to keeping a good mind is to treat it well even when you might think it doesn’t need it. Tending to it during the highs of life, help make the lows easier to manage.

What about me?

Through the consistent practice of yoga, meditation, and journaling, I’ve found an increase in patience and empathy for others. I am more aware of my breathing and how I feel in my body, therefore more friendly with my emotions and moods. I am almost always calmer, and I can understand people better by looking at events from their perspective.