The Dichotomy of Mind Caused by Trauma
By Kristy Cobillas, MEd, LPC
Feelings can be tricky. Feelings can reflect perceived reality, but they certainly do not dictate what reality is. Sometimes the two do not line up! Why does this happen? What is this dichotomy of mind that takes place between what one thinks and what one feels?
The answer, in part, is biological. Different parts of the brain have different functions. For example, the prefrontal cortex is the area that is known for the processing of a person’s executive functions, such as reasoning, impulse control, decision making, planning, and anticipating a negative outcome. It is a part of the frontal lobe, and it’s the part of the brain that says “hmm…probably ought not to do that.” The limbic system, which is located in the mid-brain, is the area that is known for facilitating emotional responses. It is the part of the brain that reacts as opposed to responding. It cannot be reasoned with; it is pure emotion.
Unfortunately, the prefrontal cortex and the midbrain don’t always communicate. One cause of this separation has to do with age; the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until someone reaches the age of 25. This is why teenagers and early twenty-somethings don’t always make the best decisions, even though we often believe they should be capable. The means of communication between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system has not been fully connected yet.
Another means for the prefrontal cortex to lose connection with the midbrain is trauma. Trauma affects brain structures in a multiplicity of ways. (See article: Lessons Taught by Trauma – click here). In this article, we will focus, primarily, on what causes the breakdown between the frontal lobe and the midbrain and what can be done to restore it.
Very often, when a traumatic memory is triggered, a particular neural network (also referred to as a “neural net”) is activated in the brain that results in the person experiencing the same somatic and emotional responses as when they were first traumatized. The neural net is made up of neurons; a neuron’s job is to send messages. Simply put, at the time of the trauma, the neurons associated with the messages that took place during the trauma (including thoughts, feelings, body sensations, etc.) form a closed neural net.
This means that no new information can come into the neural net. The person gets emotionally “frozen” in the time of the trauma, when frontal lobe cannot send rational cognitive information into the closed neural net in the midbrain. This is where the dichotomy of mind comes in – “I know _____, but I feel ______.” It is, in part, why, despite the fact that a soldier returning from combat knows that he is no longer in imminent danger, does not feel safe, regardless of how much he tells himself that he is.
Communication between the frontal lobe (logic) and the mid-brain (emotion) must be restored. How is this done? How does one get their feelings and thoughts in alignment? One technique, in particular, is known as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprogramming (EMDR).
Scientific research has shown EMDR to be an effective tool for the emotional desensitization of trauma. EMDR treatment is founded on the idea that the psychopathology that results from trauma is due to the fact that there is maladaptive encoding or unfinished processing in the brain. EMDR is a tool that can open up the neural net so that new information can be received and processed.
Research shows that neurons that fire together will wire together, in other words, the more you use a neural pathway, the stronger those pathways become. The process of EMDR is utilized to allow the client to safely open the neural net, and tap into the emotions, sensations, images, etc. that were experienced during the original trauma. While this neural net is open, the trauma can be reprocessed and new, more adaptive information can be introduced.
How does this process of EMDR work? First, EMDR (Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) is a bit of a misnomer. Eye movement is not necessarily the venue by which neurological change takes place. EMDR utilizes bilateral stimulation in the brain, via hand movements, eye movements, sounds, or a combination of any of the aforementioned. When this takes place, different neuronal firing occurs in the brain.
The counselor utilizes bilateral stimulation to help the client safely remember the traumatic experience as though they were watching it happen from a distance, rather than from a first-person perspective; this activates the traumatic neural net. Once the neural net has been activated, the counselor and client can tap into many of the somatic, emotional, and cognitive experiences that occurred during the trauma originally, in order to reprocess them.
At this point, new information (such as the idea of being and feeling safe) is introduced via utilizing cognitive interweaves, such as “What would your best friend say to you in this situation?” “Can you visualize them being there with you?” “What are the internal messages you tell yourself, because of the trauma?” Due to the bilateral stimulation, there is new neuronal firing. This allows new messages of truth to become “wired in” to the neural net, which in turn, allows for a marriage of thought and feeling to occur. New, more adaptive information is now interjected into the once closed traumatic neural net and the dichotomy of mind, “I know” vs. “I feel,” is reconciled.
If you or someone you love has experienced trauma and find themselves in the position of having this dichotomy of mind, there is help. EMDR, as part of a multi-factorial treatment approach, can help reunite what one knows and what one feels. Although highly effective, EMDR is not necessarily a complete treatment for trauma in and of itself, but is optimally utilized as a tool that assists in the healing process.
Kristy Cobillas, LPC at Agape Christian Counseling, has been married for 25 years to her husband Tim, and is co-founder of The Joshua House, a non-denominational church community and 501c3 organization. She specializes in treating trauma and anxiety related disorders. Click on the picture to the left to read her full bio.