Your Brain on Trauma Part Four: Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis

Your Brain on Trauma Part Four: Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis

Here is the final part of our Your Brain on Trauma blog series; if you missed Parts One, Two, or Three make sure you check them out. In some ways we have saved the most damaging for last. Although an overactive amygdala, an imbalanced prefrontal cortex, and fried hippocampus cause all sorts of havoc it is in someways our overactive Hypothalamus-Pituitarty-Adrenal Axis (HPA) that causes the lasting damage.

First what is this HPA thing? Basically it is a loop in your brain and body that releases different hormones in response to different stressors. So, you get stressed or scared your body activates the HPA to release stress hormones like cortisol. The HPA plays a vital role in our emotions, sexuality, immune system, sleep, and energy storage. As you can see it’s really important.

In a healthy system it releases the stress hormones and then once the stressor has past it goes back to baseline and everything is back to normal. When we experience trauma the HPA get overactive and it does not go back to base line; we lose our ability to bounce back. This sounds bad as is but what’s even worse is that over time when we do not have the ability to return to normal it begins to have long lasting effects.

There was a study done known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) where the researchers looked at different hardships people experience prior to the age of 18 and what they found was incredible. Basically, the more stressors your experiences the greater likelihood you are to experience not only depression, anxiety, substance abuse, but you are at greater risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and early death. The theory is that when our HPA is overactive it inflames our entire nervous system causing a damage and chaos everywhere and therefore having long term consequences. Fear not, however, there is hope.

In order to help the HPA chill out there are things you can do:

Learn To Be Resilient:

Resiliency is our ability to bounce back to baseline. When we can strengthen our resiliency muscles we can retrain the HPA to function normally rather than being overactive all the time. Check out our earlier post one different ways to bounce back to learn more on how to become more resilient.

Learn to Calm Your Nerves:

Throughout this series we have talked about trauma and the brain but there is much more to it than just that. Trauma effects our whole nervous system so if we want to heal from hardships we have to retrain the nervous system to relax. Some ways of doing that is deep breathing, singing/humming, yoga, and cold showers. There are a lot of others but those of some of the more common ones.

Healthy Nutrition:

Every here the phrase “you are what you eat”? Well, in some ways this is true. Our nervous system is a machine and we can forget that a healthy machine needs proper fuel to run. Fast food, excess sugar, caffeine, and all around junk food is not the fuel our machine needs. In fact in one study they discovered that being dehydrated by 8 ounces can lead to an increase in cortisol by 25%. That’s just one glass of water, imagine what could be done with a well rounded diet.

Here’s the challenge: If you have read through all of these posts on trauma you must be interested or struggling yourself. So the challenge this week is to take care of yourself or a loved one by getting them the professional help they need. Have compassion and empathy for yourself or a loved one and know that even with all the tips in this blog there is still a journey that needs to happen in order to heal.

Disclaimer: This blog is designed for educational, informational, and entertainment purposes. It not meant to be a substitute for any mental health or medical treatment. If you need a doctor or therapist please find one near you. Please do not attempt to do anything without your doctor and therapist or other professional’s go ahead, and remember to use common sense. Pictures from Pixabay.com.

Your Brain On Trauma Part Three: Prefrontal Cortex

Your Brain On Trauma Part Three: Prefrontal Cortex

Welcome to Part 3 of the Your Brain on Trauma Series, check out Part 1 and Part 2 if you missed them. Some of the major symptoms of trauma include intrusive thoughts, negative thinking patterns, poor decision making, intense or erratic behavior, and inappropriate responses to different situations and triggers. These symptoms are linked to a malfunctioning prefrontal cortex (PFC).

The prefrontal cortex is the youngest part of our brain. It sits right behind our forehead and is responsible for everything that makes us human. It gives us the ability to have complex thoughts; it regulates our higher functioning; it helps us fit into society and get along with others; it helps us create and imagine; it gives us mathematics, language, philosophy, art, music, our sense of right and wrong. Bottomline: the PFC is super cool and REALLY important and when we experience trauma it struggles to function properly.

If the prefrontal cortex is not working properly we can snap at little irritations and distractions. We can feel disconnected from society, our friends and family. We can do things that we never would have dreamed about doing previously such as attacking a loved one, punching a wall, or yelling and screaming at our children (this is your PFC being overridden by your amygdala to keep you alive). We think distressing things about ourselves and about the world such as “I’m worthless.” “I’m unlovable,” “The world isn’t safe,” “I’m not safe,” “It’s all my fault.” (This is your right prefrontal lobe on overdrive hyper focusing on sadness, anger, and despair)  In order to heal from trauma we need to calm our fight and flight response by slowing down the amygdala and calming the nervous system, but to regain our humanity we have heal the prefrontal cortex.

Here are some methods and techniques that have been shown to help:

Meditation

Meditation is a complicated and simple concept all at once. The simple version is that it is being present in the here and now noticing and accepting your inner experience and the world around you without judgement. This is easier than it sounds, but with dedication and practice meditation has been shown to improve communication between different parts of the brain. What this does is allows our brain to preform better and faster than without meditation. There are some great apps that you can download to help you practice meditation.

Positive Self Talk

When the prefrontal cortex is not working properly itcan lead to focusing heavily on the negative and this can lead to severe negative self talk. One way to challenge that is to practice positive self talk. The point of this exercise is not to inflate egos but to help the brain remember that there are positive things in the world and one of them is you. Start simple: for everything you do simply say, “I love myself.” If you did that for every little action you did, good or bad, you would be saying it thousands of times; after that, it is only a matter of time before the brain starts rewiring itself for positive self talk.

Hang Out With Friends

The prefrontal cortex helps us fit into society but when it is not working properly it can make social interaction difficult. This can lead to isolation and avoidance of social engagement. This makes sense and is understandable but does not lead to healing. Instead of isolating get out and be with friends and family especially if your trauma is relational such as a break up. You do not have to be a social butterfly but with little steps you can retrain you brain how to interact and be with people without the fear and anxiety that often comes with trauma.

Here’s the challenge: Download your favorite meditation app andtry it for a week. Notice any changes in your thoughts, feelings, and behavior. This is not a magic bullet and will not heal everything after a few session but it is one extra tool to help you heal and bloom.

Disclaimer: This blog is designed for educational, informational, and entertainment purposes. It not meant to be a substitute for any mental health or medical treatment. If you need a doctor or therapist please find one near you. Please do not attempt to do anything without your doctor and therapist or other professional’s go ahead, and remember to use common sense. Pictures from Pixabay.com.

Your Brain On Trauma Part Two: The Hippocampus

Your Brain On Trauma Part Two: The Hippocampus

Welcome to Part 2 of our Your Brain on Trauma series; if you missed Part 1 check it out: Here. One way that trauma effects our brains is that is disrupts our memory. We have a hard time remembering the event itself, we have a hard time remembering things in general, we may remember only bits and pieces, the memory may be mixed up and out of order. This is what happens when the hippocampus, our memory center, is disrupted.

The hippocampus lies in the middle of our brain and is responsible for transferring and storing information of the day into memories. When we experience trauma our hippocampus is short circuited by the rush of sensory information. Due to this short circuiting the hippocampus does not do its job properly. Part of that job is to sever the emotional context of the event from the memory of the event. 

The amygdala sits right next to the hippocampus and is responsible for emotions like fear and anger. When the hippocampus does not sever the emotional connection properly that is when we suffer from things like flashbacks and nightmares. Beyond those issues having memory problems can certainly effect our day to day lives. So, how do we help the brain heal?

Sleep:

Sleep is so incredibly important for us. This can obviously be hard to do if you are suffering from nightmares or unpleasant dreams but getting a healthy sleep routine and sleep hygiene down can help drastically. Make sure your room is cool and dark, keep electronics (yes phones too) out of the bedroom. Go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning.

Writing:

Journalling and writing can help improve memory and recall. It is not suggested that you write about your trauma without the guidance of a trained professional, but writing about your day to day life especially noticing the positives and having a gratitude journal can help you strengthen your hippocampus.

Movement:

Getting up and moving, especially any form of vigorous exercise can help heal the brain. Cardiovascular exercise has been shown to help people learn, recall, and process information. It also has the added benefit of decrease stress and anxiety.

Here’s the challenge: for the next week try to improve your sleep, write a daily journal, and get up and move. Go at your own pace and have patience with yourself. Even if you take two steps forward and one step back you have still taken one step forward. If you are struggling than please seek our a trauma informed therapist near you.

Disclaimer: This blog is designed for educational, informational, and entertainment purposes. It not meant to be a substitute for any mental health or medical treatment. If you need a doctor or therapist please find one near you. Please do not attempt to do anything without your doctor and therapist or other professional’s go ahead, and remember to use common sense. Pictures from Pixabay.com.

Your Brain On Trauma Part One: The Amygdala

Your Brain On Trauma Part One: The Amygdala

Trauma effects our whole being. It damages our mind, heart, body, and spirit but exactly how does it do this? To answer that question we have to look at trauma and the brain. A key point to acknowledge is that our brain and mind are two different things. Our mind is our thoughts, beliefs, and perception, our brain is the organ in our skull. As weird as it may sound it can be helpful to begin to differentiate your self from your brain. especially if you have experienced trauma it is vital to recognize that your brain has been altered not only in the way it functions but physically down to the very neurons and when we can accept the notion that after experiencing trauma we are not “crazy” but that our brain has been altered it can take a load of pressure off our shoulders.

Think of it this way. If someone lost a leg in an accident we wouldn’t dream of simply saying, “Well you’re just not trying hard enough to walk.” No, we would acknowledge and accept they are missing a limb and that it will take time for them to heal and adjust. We need to treat ourselves the same way after trauma. We are not weak, crazy, or lazy our brains have changed and it takes time to heal and adjust. The advantage that our brain has over our other parts of our body is that the brain has the ability to heal and adjust due to a process called neuroplasticity. It can get better.

So exactly how is the brain effected by different types of trauma and how can be bounce back from it? Well for the sake of length and not boring you, dear reader, to death I’m going to keep it to four main parts of the brain: amygdala, hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.

Amygdala

The amygdala is responsible for our fight and flight response; it is the smoke alarm of the brain. It is a little almond shape part of our brain that regulates fear, anger, and other emotions necessary for survival. What happens after trauma is that the amygdala goes into overdrive; the smoke alarm goes off non-stop. It starts to see everything as a threat and keeps us in fight or flight even when we need to be resting. It does this so often that it actually grows and gets biggerproducing even bigger fight or flight responses. So, here are three ways to calm the amygdala.

Breathing Exercises: There are a number of breathing exercises designed to help you relax your amygdala. One of my personal favorites is 4-7-8. This is where you breathe in for four seconds, hold it for seven seconds, and breath out for eight seconds. Give it a shot for about three breaths and notice how you feel afterwards. There are other breathing exercises out there find one that you really like.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation: This is a great technique to help tell your amygdala to chill out. starting at your toes and working your way up tense every muscle you can as hard as you can, hold it for several seconds, and then release the tension and notice the sense of relaxation that comes afterwards. This help the body tell the amygdala “Hey, you said there was danger, we got all tense ready to fight, nothing happened, you’re wrong there is no danger so just chill.”

Peaceful Place: This is a visualization technique to help you and your brain relax. Picture a place that is the ideal peaceful location for you. This can be a real place, imaginary, somewhere you have been in real life, somewhere you would like to go. You are only limited by your imagination. Take a moment and really put yourself there. Incorporate all your senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste. Notice what that place is like and how your body relaxes when you go there. 

Here’s the challenge: Practice these three things one a daily basis and notice what happens to your fight or flight response. Please keep in mind that to truly heal from trauma there is more than just breathing and relaxing things like therapy so please seek out an awesome therapist.

 

Disclaimer: This blog is designed for educational, informational, and entertainment purposes. It not meant to be a substitute for any mental health or medical treatment. If you need a doctor or therapist please find one near you. Please do not attempt to do anything without your doctor and therapist or other professional’s go ahead, and remember to use common sense.

Your Origin Story

Your Origin Story

I have always loved the origin stories of different superheroes. Batman’s grief over his parents death, Superman’s crash landing in Kansas, even Bilbo’s reluctance to join the band of dwarves all have powerful psychological and emotional roots and intense consequences. This is what it is like to do trauma work.

We all have our own origin stories. How did you become the person you are today? Where does your anxiety stem from? How have you survived for so long on this planet? How are you so resilient? What major events in your life have deeply impacted who you are today? Sometimes these events are obvious and sometimes they are subtle and hidden. Regardless, it is vital that you begin to think about your origin story and look at what contributed to you becoming you because if you are expected to change who you are you really need to change how you view and interpret where you came from.

What does that mean? We cannot go back in time and change life events, but we can change the meaning we have place on them and the attachment we have to them. Imagine what would happen to Bruce Wayne if he did not have such a strong attachment to justice and avenging his parents’ death, if he did not feel such a strong sense of guilt and responsibility for their death. Do you think he would still have become Batman? Probably not.

Sometimes negative and painful things happen to us in our life and we need to accept that. Through those events we develop certain messages especially about how we see the world and how we see ourselves. Sometimes this messages are understandable. Imagine a combat vet dropping to the floor after hearing a car backfire. The message his brain is sending him is, “Danger, I’m not safe. Get down!” This message is understandable if he has been living in a war zone for so long. Still, in order to get him to not hit the deck every time a car backfires he needs to rewrite that message. He needs to recognize that the message “Danger, I’m not safe,” is a result from a past experience and that in the present moment in the here and now he is perfectly safe because there is no danger from a car backfiring. So if rewriting our attachment and meaning of our origin story is key to healing and blooming into our best selves, how do we do that?

One, go to therapy. A trained therapist will help you not only identify your origin story but will help you notice how it effects you today (cognitively, emotionally, physically, even spiritually), define the messages you tell yourself, and how to alter those messages for a better future. Trauma therapists in particular are great at this especially if they are trained in EMDR or other somatic therapies (more on these later).

Second, practice mindfulness and being present. Some key components to mindfulness are acceptance and non-judgement of our current situation. We often spend so muchtime in future thought leading us to anxiety or past thought leading us to regret and shame. Staying in the present moment helps us focus on what is actually going on rather than having these false messages from the past or future dictating for us. Let go of any judgement and just notice what is going on in the here and now.

Third, love yourself. This is vital. In order to rewrite how you interpret your origin story you have to replace it with something else. I have worked with so many clients who struggle with self love but loving yourself completely and unconditionally can go lightyears for healing your psychological and emotional wounds
and beginning to thrive.

 

Here’s the challenge: Identify one life event that has had a drastic impact (positive or negative) on who you are today. What messages about yourself did you gain from that experience? Do you love yourself despite that experience? If not how can you begin to?

 

Disclaimer: This blog is designed for educational, informational, and entertainment purposes. It not meant to be a substitute for any mental health or medical treatment. If you need a doctor or therapist please find one near you. Please do not attempt to do anything without your doctor and therapist or other professional’s go ahead, and remember to use common sense. Pictures from Pixabay.com.