Understanding Trauma

I have a long background in working with children who have experienced trauma. Trauma is stored in our brain differently than memories. The neuroscience behind what trauma does to our brains is incredible. I am NOT a neuroscientist, and yet I’m going to attempt to give a very, very simple explanation that I’ve used with kids before to help us better understand what happens during traumatic experiences. This is an explanation that I heard years ago (I cannot remember the source) so please know that this is someone else’s wonderful illustration of trauma that I’m sharing with you.

Think of your brain as having an upstairs and a downstairs (basement). The upstairs of your brain is in charge of complicated thinking, thoughtful decision making, learning, reasoning, etc. The basement of your brain is in charge of the body functions for survival like breathing, pumping your heart and self-protection. You’ve probably heard before that when presented with a fearful or traumatic situation our bodies go into fight, flight, freeze or faint. A way to explain it is that the basement of our brain gets “flooded” when we get really scared. Our amygdala (part of our brain) releases cortisol (a hormone) and it “floods” the basement of our brain and messes with the communication of the upstairs of our brain that helps us make good decisions (or any decisions for that matter). When our brain is “flooded” and our communication between function/survival and thinking/reasoning are cut off, our brains make decisions based on survival/protection. This is where we end up fighting, fleeing, freezing up or maybe even fainting. It is pure self-protection. It is a natural response.

So, when you encounter a child or adult in fight, flight, freeze or faint mode, keep in mind that the basement of their brain may be “flooded” and they aren’t able to calm down or rationalize with you in that moment. The communication with the reasoning part of their brain isn’t functioning correctly. Therefore, the best thing to do to help “unflood” the basement of their brain is to breathe with them. Taking deep breaths will slow the release of cortisol and thus begin to “unflood” their basement. After their basement has been “unflooded” they will likely be exhausted and then later, you can go back to having a rational, thoughtful conversation with them. During the “flood” is not the time for conversation or reasoning. It cannot happen.

Another tip – telling a person to breathe or take deep breaths is not as effective as breathing with them (and may make them more upset). The best thing to do is simply say “breathe with me” and you begin taking the deep breaths until they join you. The best thing you can do is to BE with that person and BREATHE with that person.

There is a lot of trauma and hurt in our world and I am hopeful that this simple illustration and explanation of the neuroscience traumatic responses will help us better understand it. Most importantly, I hope this illustration will help us better respond to it. Let us love one another. Let us breathe with one another. Let us help one another “unflood” our basements as often as needed.

If you’d like more information on stress, anxiety, and fear in children and youth then please join us for one of our upcoming Family Ties Workshops: http://www.fumchurst.org/familyties/

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