People with trauma experiences spend too much time blaming and shaming themselves for human stress responses that are physiologically beyond their control, yet they believe they should be able to control them.
When I was a young EMT working on an ambulance, I experienced a traumatic event that fucked up my head. For years following the event, I suffered flashbacks, anxiety attacks, depression, and extreme mood swings that I thought I should be able to control. I always considered myself a strong person and rational thinker, yet I was in no way able to control my thoughts and behaviors. I alienated friends and put my parents through hell. This perceived failure to control my mind resulted in a blame and shame loop that kept me reeling. I became stuck like Bill Murray in ‘Groundhogs Day’ and found myself unable to move forward in achieving my life goals.
This was a problem, because no matter how hard I tried, the result was always the same. Finally, one fine day a trauma informed therapist freed me from my prison of self-torture by teaching me, it was not my fault. It was my traumatized brain.
Science- How the Traumatized Brain Functions
To stop the blame and shame game we need to understand how the brain works. When we recognize that our actions are due to a brain malfunction, we can give ourselves some grace and start fixing the problem at hand.
The limbic system is the most primitive part of our brain. Its purpose is to detect threats and protect us by activating survival mode, otherwise known as the fight-flight-or freeze reaction. When this happens, stress hormones adrenaline, cortisol and other neurochemicals release to provoke us to get away from the threat by any means possible. Blood flow increases to the limbic system and decreases in our thinking brain, the prefrontal cortex.
Why is this important? Because when we feel like our safety is at risk, our brains priority is keeping our bodies primed to protect ourselves. It shuts down the prefrontal cortex, the structure of the brain responsible for reasoning, focus, comprehension, problem solving, managing emotions, and impulse control. In other words, the thinking brain is dialed down, and the primitive survival brain is dialed way up! You literally cannot control your emotions or behaviors in a highly reactive state of mind.
Individuals who experience trauma have brains that are often in a persistent hypervigilant state. When a bad memory triggers, the mind is unable to differentiate between an actual present threat and that of a past memory. The limbic brain turns up, and the prefrontal cortex goes down, so you have trouble regulating reactions. But these reactions are normal biological responses meant to protect us from harm. These emotional outburst or physical reactions can be interpreted by society as ‘bad behavior’, when in fact, the reactions are completely normal physiological behaviors.
The solution, trauma brains need to learn how to down regulate their limbic system, so it stops hijacking the rational, reasoning part of the brain. Once that happens, the emotional and behavioral dysregulation can be managed.
Limbic System Hacks- Techniques to DownShift Your Primitive Brain
There is good news! You can rewire your brain. To do so we need to feel safe, empowered and learn coping skills to down regulate and re-calibrate our nervous system. We want to get out of the head and into the body otherwise known as ‘grounding’. We need to slow down and give the mind a hard reset and get back into our bodies. Here are a couple of techniques to try:
Sounds stupid as shit right? But it seriously works. When humans are stressed, we tend to either take short shallow quick breaths or hold our breath. When you become aware that your brain is in hyperdrive and you are spinning out, instruct yourself to STOP. Literally say aloud ‘STOP’. You want to disrupt, shock, cause a pause in thought. Next, take five, deep, slow, breaths. Focus on the breath, not your thoughts. Reset your brain. If at the end of the five breaths you are still spinning, repeat the process until you calm down.
Let’s Get Physical
I personally like this one. It is as simple as doing 20 pushups, jumping jacks or just dancing around your kitchen with loud 80’s head banger music playing loud. You could take a walk, run, or bike ride around the block (outside in nature is a bonus adding to the down regulation affects). How about lifting weights, punching a heavy bag, or some soothing yoga. No really, I know I usually hate the woo, but I absolutely love yoga. You cannot be in your head and concentrate on holding a yoga pose.
Distract your brain so it stops focusing on whatever thought is provoking it. You can listen to music, watch TV, listen to your favorite podcast. Focus on what you are listening to. You need to shift your mind. Reading can be tough as it requires your prefrontal cortex, or thinking brain to concentrate on the words, but if you can make it work, great!
Once your brain is down regulated and safe you are now able to focus, plan, act, change behaviors, accomplish goals and produce new results.