I will introduce 2 ways how childhood trauma affects the brain. This information is so useful for your healing journey because it helps you to understand why willpower just doesn’t work when you want to make changes in your life and how our brains influence our emotions, behaviors, and reactions.
It is also important because trauma can’t be reduced to what has happened to your mind or emotions as childhood trauma also affects your body including the brain. Both are connected and they affect each other.
I will first provide an outline of what each of those areas ( Hippocampus, Amygdala, and Prefrontal Cortex) of the brain do then then explain how you are affected by changes to your brain as a result of childhood trauma.
The Hippocampus – the Thinking Brain
One of the Hippocampus’ main functions is memory. It stores years of information about past experiences in particular some childhood experiences. It also has the ability to form and retain new memories about experienced events and newly learned facts.
Known as your thinking brain, which in contrast to the Amygdala below, it works much slower. It is responsible for the formation, organization, and storage of new memories as well as connecting certain sensations and emotions to these memories.
It evaluates the information it is given to see if there are real problems. If there are problems then the Fight Flight Freeze or Fawn response is activated. If the situation is fine, you will relax or just learn from it as it collects new information. We use that new information to learn for things that will happen in the future.
The amygdala is known as the emotional brain
The Amygdala is responsible for processing our emotions and our memories. It also tries to detect threatening information by using your senses i.e. touch, taste, sound smell or vision. This bit of the brain is responsible for finding out if the threat is OK or dangerous. It doesn’t use any type of analysis; it happens so quickly as well. Most of the time we are not even aware of it.
If the Amygdala, your emotional brain) feels the situation is threatening, stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released, which send messages through the nervous system to your body to Fight Flight Freeze, or Fawn.
Quickly choosing the right response is important to help us survive anything that threatens us. However, we can’t fight when we need to run as we could get ourselves killed. If we constantly run from things, it would leave us exhausted and maybe there are times there where we need to fight back or push back.
Freeze is keeping still and hoping the threat will go away and you won’t be noticed. Freeze can also be interpreted as avoiding, siding with or giving in to the threat in the hope that it won’t be too damaging.
For all animals, the Fight, flight, freeze or fawn response is a survival response. The problem for us as humans, is that due to how we are emotionally and due to the things that have affected us, we still think we are under threat so we react in life that we are under constant threat. However, this is not always helpful for us and others.
What happens after childhood trauma
The problem is, when someone goes through prolonged childhood trauma, these two systems, the Amygdala and Hippocampus don’t work as well as they could do.
Our bodies are designed to handle stress for short periods of time, then we are supposed to relax and go about our daily lives. When a child goes through stress and trauma, the stress hormones don’t get discharged
This means that the stress hormones cannot be discharged and remain in the system, which can have a number of negative consequences, not least forcing the alarm system to remain on red alert, or ‘online’
Due to experiencing a number of negative things over a period of time, especially as a child or adolescent, we learn how to respond to life challenges based on the things we have been through. We didn’t learn that the threat was over and we would feel safe. We also probably didn’t’ learn new positive experiences so we could store it in our Thinking brain or our hippocampus.
What happens is that the Amygdala due to could end up seeing or feeling emotionally a lot more threats, the Hippocampus, the thinking brain isn’t always activated to remind us due to past positive experiences that we are safe, it is switched off .
Real Life Example
If we could relate it to a real-life example here. We have one situation here and two individuals reacting differently because of their Amygdala, the emotional bit of the brain.
You have two guys starting a new job. They are the same again are both working for the same engineering company. Their manager is very old-fashioned in the way he manages his staff where what he says goes and he often doesn’t give his staff much room for negotiation. He also doesn’t hesitate in telling these two new recruits what he thinks about their work.
One of the two John as we will call him had a very stable upbringing and has no issues with both his parents. Sees the situation for what it is, understands the personality of his manager, and doesn’t take what he says too much to heart. He learns from what he can and then leaves the rest at work.
The other new recruit Robert had a difficult upbringing where his dad was an aggressive alcoholic and his mum didn’t spend time with her children. He instantly saw this manager as a threat as he couldn’t cope with some of his comments. He took his comments personally many times he had sleepless nights thinking about them.
His self-esteem was low but this decreased further as a consequence. This also affected the quality of his work as he felt that it was never ever good enough.
John knew that his manager’s behavior was about his behavior and that it wasn’t a reflection on him. He knew who he was and was confident in his own abilities so he relaxed.
Robert, however, saw threats daily and even started to see threats from his colleagues even when they were trying to be supportive. His experience told him that people can’t be relied on and that he couldn’t trust other people.
This starts to explain a lot of the things you go through, the things you do, and the things you try to change but struggle with. It will explain a lot of things. It is not you doing these things, it is your Amygdala that almost overpowers you and takes over.
We can’t do anything about the nature of how our brain works but we can learn, through time, consistency and effort how to manage it so those things don’t continue to overtake our lives.
Understanding how this works is very useful as it helps you to understand that there is a physical and neurological response that in many ways to why we react to things the way we do and many times, we don’t have control over those reactions as they are there to protect us.
Our Emotional Alarm system
These responses are there for us to survive and respond appropriately to danger. It sorts of acts like an alarm system to wake us up. This alarm system helps us not to experience the full extent of our pain so we could continue to live basically. As a result of this, the brain releases a ton of chemicals and hormones that sets of this chain of events that I’m about to explain.
When you are triggered, remember this happens to you physically and emotionally. This reaction automatically sends a signal to the brain to prepare to Fight, Flight, Freeze or the Fawn response which most of you haven’t heard of which I will explain in my next podcast what that is.
We would then react to threats by either fighting back with the fight response or, running away, disconnecting ourselves from what’s happening or trying to make peace with people to diffuse any tension.
If you think about what it is like in the animal kingdom. You have the lion and the deer. The lion hunts the deer for food, the deer sees the lion and then runs. The lion feels rage which motivates him to dominate the deer to get what he needs. Unfortunately, the lion catches the deer.
The deer then gives up and “freezes” so he doesn’t feel the full extent of the pain of being eaten.
But if the lion didn’t catch the deer and somehow the deer outruns him. When the lion disappears and goes home, the deer will make a note that he is safe then he will relax and be OK.
For some who have gone through prolonged stress and trauma, and your hippocampus and amygdala aren’t working properly, it doesn’t, unfortunately, inform your brain that you are safe and you are constantly on high alert. Almost like you are constantly running from a lion
Why does it still affect you?
What happens here unfortunately is that we often get locked into one of the threat responses, Fight, Flight, Freeze or the Fawn response as we believe, on a subconscious level, that this would keep us safe.
What happens when we have experienced childhood trauma, we would respond, regardless of the situation with one, maybe two of the Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn types. This was a way of coping as a child, but when we carry those behaviors into adulthood, it can cause problems, as you can imagine for us.
I hope you found that useful just to understand how your past could shape your brain and how this makes us, as it were, respond to situations the way that we do.
The main lesson that I hope you get from this is that what is learned could be unlearned. All you need is first to be aware of what can trigger those emotions and feelings, and how you tend to react then learn new and different strategies not only to manage the things has and when they happen to you but to look at it as a lifestyle change.
Your day-to-day life such as what you eat sleep, the people you associate with, what you want for your life etc all contribute to how you feel about yourself. But you can make these changes in small steps consistently over times.