Intense emotions, fear, racing heart, sweating, numb emotions, confusion, trouble thinking clearly, feeling distracted and indecisiveness can all be part of the ongoing legacy of childhood trauma. Living with these symptoms is rarely a fun experience though, so what can you do about it?
Your reptilian brain: There are three main brain levels that come into play when we talk about trauma, the reptilian brain, the mammalian brain, and the higher level thinking brain. When someone is in a scary or dangerous system they instinctively go into reptilian brain mode, their body is primed for survival. In this stage the fight or flight or freeze reaction is launched and people may find that they’re snapping at people, they are hurting themselves and people they care about, or they are avoiding job and life responsibilities. This brain has evolved to help you survive and last when adverse life experiences happen or you are in danger. The great news is that you’ve made it to this point in life, you have likely survived scary and traumatic experiences and I congratulate you on getting to this point. The down side is chronic trauma reactions may mean you are not able to access your other brain levels.
Your mammalian brain: This brain is responsible for emotions and attachment, it allows us to feel, accept, and react to our emotions as well as allowing us to form attachments and relationships. In order to use this brain though we need to be in a safe and secure environment and be able to shut off our reptilian brain. Being unable to get to this brain and use it effectively is one reason many people who have experienced childhood trauma continue to struggle with relationships. Some people who have experienced trauma find themselves in abusive relationships, some find that they are unable to say “no”, while others find they bounce from one short-term relationship to the next and yet others avoid relationships all together. Without healthy connections and people you can depend on, having a happy and healthy life can be a struggle.
Your higher-level thinking brain: This brain helps us access our higher-level thinking and reasoning skills. It helps us see various perspectives on a situation and make decisions that incorporate emotions while also looking at our short-term and long-term goals. In this brain we can challenge black and white thinking patterns and figure out who we really are and what we want. Some signs you are not yet able to access this brain are being unsure of who you are and what you want, continuing behaviours and addictive patterns that are not in line with who you want to be and how you want to live your life.
At this point you’re probably wondering how to access these levels of your brain more effectively. There are a number of skills you can learn in order to regulate your emotions, tolerate your distress, and gain feelings of safety. Some skills are in other articles on this website and in the resources page while others will likely be published in the future. If you have any questions feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and as always, stay strong and continue on your healing journey.