By Kristy Cobillas, MEd, LPC
“What good does it do to talk about it, if it’s not going to change anything?”
When it comes to trauma, there are those who will attempt to mentally and emotionally bury the experience. It is true that simply talking about the past does not change it. Recounting the memory of a horrendous experience may do little more than cause one to re-experience the emotional pain. In therapy, victims of trauma can process the event(s) with the help of a professional, who uses techniques conducive to the healing process.
Many people who have experienced trauma continue to suffer long after the event is over. The memories may fade over time and sometimes they will seem to disappear altogether; yet, the effects of the trauma may be life-long. Trauma often teaches lessons that embed themselves in each of its victims. For example, through trauma, one may learn to become more cautious and self-protective in the future.
These biological “lessons,” teach the brain to interpret messages through the lens of danger, even when the messages are benign. Many will experience biological symptoms due to the body habituating to a state of stress. Because their body is telling them they are in distress, they may find themselves looking for something to worry about, even if there is not a real threat. They might think, “I feel anxious, therefore something must be wrong.”
The truth is that, due to unprocessed trauma, the body’s sympathetic nervous system is stuck on high alert. The threat is in the past, but the emotions continue to be elicited in the present. In other words, the memories of trauma may fade, but, “the body remembers.” Babette Rothschild
Sometimes, the learned self-preservation response that protects a person from future vulnerability may also be the very thing that is harmful to their once healthy relationships. Traumatic experiences can teach the brain to stay on high alert and can trigger “fight or flight” chemicals to be released more often than is typical of someone who has not experienced trauma. The release of these hormones is useful when a person is truly in danger, but it becomes destructive for the body if maintained long term.
When a person establishes a new behavioral or thought pattern, new neural pathways are formed in the brain. The more they practice a certain behavior or engage in a certain thought pattern, the more it reinforces the neural pathways associated with that thought or behavior. Someone who has experienced trauma or prolonged anxiety, if left unprocessed, can develop entrenched neural pathways to the midbrain, where the limbic system (the area of the brain that is responsible for emotions) is located.
For many people who have a history of trauma, even when they are not in danger, the limbic system is highly activated, and the resources that should be available for other brain functions such as concentration, analysis, critical thinking, and even relaxation, are rerouted.
The frontal lobe, which is responsible for reason and logic, becomes starved for nourishment, which causes the person to be easily distracted and have difficulty living in the present. Additionally, those who have been traumatized have higher cortisol levels, which not only can cause weight gain, but also can damage the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for mediating memory. Often people experience this as feeling “on edge” and they don’t know why. They might find themselves snapping at others in anger, or in a constant state of physiological agitation for “no reason.”
The anxiety associated with trauma often causes insomnia, as well. During sleep, sensory information from the day’s events is sent from the thalamus to the frontal lobe for processing. This lack of sleep inhibits proper processing of the traumatic information, which can increase symptoms of anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder, and/or prolong the healing process.
What Can Be Done?
Relaxation techniques, visualization, and exercise can be helpful for lowering physiological arousal. Therapeutic treatments that re-route neural activity and alter neurotransmitters, such as EMDR (Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and NLP (Neurolinguistic Programming), are helpful in slowing down biological stress symptoms and “fight or flight” responses. Cognitive techniques help to neutralize the competition between what one knows to be objectively true and what one feels. Cognitive Process Therapy (CPT) is utilized to identify and elicit underlying beliefs that stem from the trauma.
A holistic and comprehensive approach to working through the trauma, which goes far beyond merely “talking about it,” is necessary for the victim to heal and begin moving forward in their life. If you, or someone you know, struggle(s) with the after effects of trauma, there is hope!
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. Click on the picture to the left to read her bio.