The effects of trauma can seem inescapable. Whether it is yourself or a loved one, traumatic events are bound to happen. While many are incredibly resilient to potentially debilitating events that transpire around them, others can be adversely affected by these events for years to come. The effects of trauma leave traces in our homes, on our families, and on our friends. Each person responds differently to these events, yet it is clear that trauma can make a strong impact on our emotions, our minds, our relationships, and there have even been multiple studies that show that trauma affects our biology and our immune systems.
The Effects of Trauma on Our Brain
Our brain is usually incredibly adept at identifying danger, and we have a tendency to go into a “fight or flight mode” when this occurs. For many that have experienced severe trauma, their brain can struggle to interpret what is safe and what isn’t, especially when they are exposed to triggers or situations that remind them of the trauma. Within the brain is the amygdala, which has often been referred by some as the brain’s “smoke detector.” The function of the amygdala is to identify whether an incoming signal is relevant for our survival.
In “The Body Keeps the Score” author Bessel Van Der Kolk (great book about trauma.. if you are at all interested in trauma and haven’t read this book, pick it up), details how the amygdala, along with the hippocampus, works:
“If the amygdala senses a threat… it sends an instant message down to the hypothalamus and the brain stem, recruiting the stress-hormone system and the autonomic nervous system to orchestrate a whole-body response. Because the amygdala processes the information it receives from the thalamus faster than the frontal lobes do, it decides whether incoming information is a threat to our survival even before we are consciously aware of the danger. By the time we realize what is happening, our body may already be on the move.”
When this happens, cortisol and adrenaline are released, our heart rate and blood pressure increase, and we are put into that “fight or flight” state. This is incredibly helpful when our body calls for this needed action. However, trauma increases the risk that we have of misinterpreting whether a situation is dangerous or safe. Because of this, it is common for those that have experienced traumatic events to seemingly have a “faulty alarm system”, which can lead to blow-ups or shutdowns from the individual, and confused or helpless responses from loved ones.
Because of the lasting effects of trauma on the brain, many ask “what can be done?” After all, if trauma changes the way our brain responds to stressors around us, it can be difficult to assess what is safe, who to trust, and to reality check and regulate our emotions. The challenge of trauma treatment is not only dealing with the past but enhancing the quality of day-to-day experience. Bessel Van Der Kolk continues”
“Many treatment approaches for traumatic stress focus on desensitizing patients to their past, with the expectation that re-exposure to their traumas will reduce emotional outbursts and flashbacks.”
However, this is usually “based on a misunderstanding of what happens in traumatic stress.” The most important thing we can do to help those with traumatic stress is to provide them an opportunity to live fully and securely in the present. “Desensitization may make you less reactive, but if you cannot feel satisfaction in ordinary everyday things.. life will pass you by.”
Effective Trauma Treatment
Sunrise Residential Treatment Center focuses on providing those that have experienced trauma with that opportunity to live fully and securely in the present. Sunrise employs a number of things that help provide this for the girls that come here with a traumatic history. Mindfulness, meditation, processing difficult events, medication management, and providing opportunities for the body to have experiences that contradict helplessness, rage, or collapse that can result from trauma are all important avenues to help re-connect these girls with their lives.
While the road is a difficult one, the effects that trauma bring can be overcome. I have been blessed to see many that have come into our doors overcome the debilitating effects of trauma. Seeing someone enter that can barely function in their day to day living, and then seeing someone leave with confidence they can succeed, and then seeing them do it, is what keeps me going and what contributes to me loving my job in healing lives as a therapist.