The brain on trauma

I’m a very affectionate person. I love nothing more than a kiss and a cuddle. But only when the physical contact is initiated by me or someone I deeply trust. When a stranger or someone who isn’t in my inner sanctum touches me I react in what some would describe as a rather strange way. I lash out. My immediate reaction to another human being touching me is to turn to violence. Why is this? Because I have been traumatised. The brain of a traumatised person reacts to seemingly innocuous stimuli as though it is a threat. So if you reach out to touch me and I’m not ready…I’m likely to take a swing at you. And here’s why.

You may or may not be familiar with the term ‘Reptile brain’. ‘Reptile brain’ refers to the oldest structures in our brain. It is the part of our brain we have most in common with other animals. It is essentially the most primitive part of our brain and has remained the same throughout years of evolution. As the most ancient region of our brain, it controls many life maintaining functions. These include breathing and heart beat. But the functions of the Reptile brain also extend to the regulation of the life saving elements of attention, alertness and emotion.

Within the centre of the Reptile brain is a teeny-tiny structure referred to as the Amygdala. The Amygdala is my favourite part of the brain (yes, I really do have one of those. I also have a favourite neurotransmitter but that can wait for another day). The Amygdala is largely responsible for integrating emotions, emotional behaviour and motivation. Now there is this thing called Amygdala hijack. Without getting into the science too much, the Amygdala plays a significant role in the fight or flight response. When the Amygdala believes it is responding to a threat it hijacks the rational brain (those parts of the brain that developed long after the Reptile brain) and takes over.

Amygdala hijack can be really useful. For instance, any time you step out in traffic and your body seems to ‘realise’ and pull you to safety before you even consciously register what has happened…That is the Amygdala, and its pals in the Reptile brain, doing their job. The Amygdala and the rest of the Reptile brain work faster than the rational brain. So they step into save you in a time of threat. But in the brain of a person who has experienced trauama this process is hyperactive. This can result in what Daniel Goleman referred to as ’emotional responses which are immediate and overwhelming, and out of measure with the actual stimulus because it has triggered a much more significant emotional threat’. Or to put it simply; a person like myself, who has experienced trauma, will lash out and panic in response to a simple touch because to them it represents a far greater threat. Their brain is acting on a trauma-threat response. The rational brain is not involved at all.

The brain is just reacting to what it has been taught, it expects something harmful to happen to us. It wants to protect us. It is quite sweet of the brain, really. But I wish I could convince my brain that there is nothing to worry about. That just because someone touches me doesn’t mean they want to harm me. But my brain has been traumatised. And so, the Amygdala and my Lizard brain, my old friends, continue to see threat in the most innocent of places.

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