The traumatized brain

Trauma affects three significant parts of the brain:

·      The thinking brain,

·      The feeling brain, and

·      The instinct brai 

While the thinking brain is slow, the emotional brain is quick, and the instinct brain works automatically.

When faced with danger, the feeling brain responds instantly and activates the instinct brain to get us out of the dangerous situation. Meanwhile, the thinking brain may effectively be shut down.

The feeling brain first considers escape or defense. Adrenaline and cortisol are released. Heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing increase, energy is released, and alertness is heightened. The brain and body are ready for fight or flight. One has become hyper-aroused.

If one feels helpless and trapped, and fleeing or defending oneself is too dangerous, the brain and body may shut down instead. Acetylcholine is released. Heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing decrease, one loses strength, awareness shuts down, and one feels numb. One may not even sense physical and emotional pain. This is the "play dead" or "freeze" response. One has become hypo-aroused. Dissociation is such a freeze response.

In traumatic events, the thinking brain does not choose fight, flight, or freeze. The feeling brain takes control and responds before the thinking brain is aware of what's happening. Oftentimes people who have experienced trauma feel guilty and ashamed for what they did or did not do. It's important to understand that during a traumatic event, the brain does its best to help us survive.

Since the thinking brain may effectively shut down during traumatic events, memories often become fragmented, incomplete, and inconsistent. Instead of a story, traumatic memories are often reexperienced as flashes of images and intense emotional and physical reactions to triggers.

When someone experiences a traumatic event or has a traumatic life, the feeling brain may become hyperreactive and dominate the thinking brain. The feeling brain is constantly scanning the environment for dangers and easily triggers fight, flight, or freeze. This constant stress destabilizes the instinct brain and may lead to difficulties with sleep, appetite, touch, digestion, and arousal.

Dreams, nightmares, and flashbacks may activate the same reactions and deeply engrave the trauma into the mind.

For the traumatized brain, ordinary things may lose significance, and one may become detached from everyday life. When one is constantly in survival mode, there is little room for life's ordinary joys and sorrows.

To manage the ongoing stress of trauma, some turn to addictions and other destructive strategies to cope.

In the next videos, we will seek to understand what someone who is traumatized truly needs and how one may overcome trauma through effective self-care and treatment. is a project of Adventist Health Ministries.

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