Trauma impacts and alters the brain. The brain scans of people who have been traumatized look different from those who have not been traumatized. The parts of the brain, limbic system and prefrontal cortex that are responsible for emotional regulation, memory, concentration, and motivation, are impacted. Thus, a traumatized person may have trouble thinking, speaking, and regulating their emotions. Trauma is considered a leading cause for development of depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress, substance abuse, physical health problems, and many other concerns.
“The imprint of the trauma is … in our animal brains, not our thinking brains.”
van der Kolk
Most people define trauma as physical and sexual abuse, war, or a terrorism act. However, trauma is also abandonment, rejection, neglect, harsh criticism, bullying, loss of a relationship due to a parental maltreatment, breakup, divorce, illness, or death. Even so called “happy events” such as marriage or birth of a child may be traumatic and may contain aspects of a loss. These events can have very powerful impact on how we conduct our life, relationships, and how we feel and what we have learned to believe about ourselves and others.
Trauma can be invisible, but powerful force that governs our mood, interactions, even choice of a partner or a career path. Most people are not fully aware of how their past impacts their present. Instead, they may experience a variety of symptoms such as anxiety, depression, phobias, anger, irritability, fear, terror, substance abuse, addictions, a sense of feeling out of control, feeling numb, emotional turmoil, relationship difficulties, or finding self in a continued cycle of abuse and victimization. A person might be triggered by external and internal remainders and pulled into situations that resemble the original trauma without their full conscious awareness.
A traumatic memory that has not been properly processed, is difunctionally stored in a short-term memory instead of the long-term memory. That is precisely why a traumatized person gets triggered. Being triggered is like holding a beach ball under the water, which is an impossible task. If more trauma is experienced, more “beach balls” are added. The person is so busy holding down the beach balls that they are not able to be present and enjoy the beautiful scenery that surrounds them. That’s a brain on trauma. But once the trauma is processed, there are no beach balls to push down. The memory is stored properly in a long-term memory and a person no longer gets triggered.
Accelerated Resolution Therapy (A.R.T.) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) are well established therapies that are known to address trauma. These therapies tap into the natural healing processes of a REM sleep that’s responsible for memory reprocessing and consolidation. A.R.T. and EMDR tap into these processes via eye movements and other bi-lateral stimulation. Post-treatment studies show that once a traumatic event is fully processed, no distress is left. This phenomenon is sustained over time. Also, the brain has returned to its normal functioning – the limbic system has quieted down and the pre-frontal cortex has been reactivated.