Trauma and the Brain-Body Connection
There is growing recognition within the healing professions that experiences of physical and/or emotional injury, acute and chronic pain, serious physical illness, difficult medical interventions, societal turmoil, environmental disaster, as well as many other problematic life events, will contribute to the development of a substantial reservoir of life trauma.
This trauma is held in the body. In most cases, the traumatized individual does not usually have the opportunity or the support to adequately process and integrate these traumatic life events. The traumatic experience then becomes a part of that individual’s trauma reservoir.
Physical trauma influences and is influenced by the brain. Emotional trauma influences and is influenced by the body. The brain and the body are not separate. Unresolved physical or emotional traumatic events can cause a variety of symptoms from migraines, depression, and that stuck shoulder to anxiety and lower back pain, and anything in between. Medical and psychological literature now acknowledges that approximately 75% of requests for medical care are linked to the actions or consequences of this accumulation of stress and/or trauma upon the systems of the human body.
Undigested Trauma Stuck in the Brain
The brain processes and stores these unprocessed, undigested memories incorrectly, in the subcortical part of the brain. Known as the limbic system, this part of our neurology has no language or sense of time. It has one job: To keep us alive and safe. To do its job, this part of the brain remembers everything about you, from the moment you were born. All moments are present moments in the limbic system, feeling feelings all the time! This part of the brain is where our emotions and our survival instincts tell us to fight, flee, or freeze.
Past Memories Feel Like Right Now!
When trauma is stuck in this part of the brain, past memories and their emotional charges can feel like they are happening right now. If triggered, you may react the way you did at the time of the trauma, even if you are in reality safe and not in danger.
For example, imagine you are a three-month-old in your crib. You wake up hungry and needing a diaper change, so you cry. This is what babies do. No one comes to you. Instead, you hear screaming, fighting, and loud noises in your room. Maybe you see through the bars of your crib a violent fight between your parents. In that moment you cannot explain what you feel as a three-month-old but your brain may be wiring together fear, worry, and anxiety with the stomach pain from being hungry and the uncomfortable feeling from the dirty diaper.
Those memories and related emotions from this traumatic event get stuck in the limbic brain that has no sense of time or language. The next time you feel these feelings, your brain goes back to that three-month-old experience in the crib. If you feel afraid or wired when you are 16, or 25, or yesterday, it can connect with the same pathway in the brain of the 3-month-old’s experience. You may be left wondering what the heck your internal explosion is about, because the effect of your emotional response today seems out of proportion to the cause.
If this happens to you, I am betting life does not go as well as you might like, for you and your relationships. Hamster wheel…roller coaster…no matter the metaphor, likely you are feeling overwhelmed, a bit nauseous, and perhaps despairing of ever landing on solid ground. Check out Brainspotting, it can really help!