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 affected by different types of trauma and how can be the 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.
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 bigger producing 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 afterward. 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 afterward. This help the body tell the amygdala “Hey, you said there was a 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 on 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 professionals go ahead and remember to use common sense.