Trauma and your Brain

There is so much on this topic that I want to say, but I am starting with the basics. It is my hope in doing so that I provide you with a new understanding of how we experience trauma as deeply unique individuals within an amazingly adaptive common process.

First: a definition of trauma. One of my teachers, MC McDonald (find her online here – she’s amazing), shares that her favorite definition of trauma comes from Robert Stolorow, and it’s this:

Trauma is an emotional experience that lacks a relational home.

What does that mean, exactly?

It means that any experience that is so overwhelming that you can’t process it (meaning, you can’t give it a relational home – which I will explain in more detail later) counts as trauma.

Read that again.


This definition is not everyone’s definition. Some people talk about Trauma (with a capital “T”) and trauma (lowercase t) as if some experiences are less intense (and possibly less in need of repair?) than others. Some people refer to diagnostic criteria in medical journals. Others walk a path somewhere in between.

For me, this definition is absolutely on point, because it allows for my fundamental belief – that all humans experience things differently based on where they come from and what they’ve learned – to be accounted for. I believe that what might be traumatic for one person might not be traumatic for another, based on who they are and how they perceive the experience. So it seems unfair and short sighted to me to definitively label events as traumatic or not.

I also love this definition because it accounts for the way in which our brain processes traumatic experiences. No matter what the event is, if your brain can’t process it because it’s too overwhelmed, the exact same things happen biologically to all of us.

Here’s where science comes in. There are four areas of the brain involved in the experiencing, processing, and storing of an event: the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the brain stem.

The prefrontal cortex is part of the neocortex, and it’s the part of your brain involved in executive functioning, like planning, goals, and actions. It’s our “administrative assistant.”

The amygdala is responsible for assessing threats. It’s like the “smoke detector” of the brain, constantly seeking out information to determine if a risk or danger is in our proximity. It is always assessing our environment in order to protect us.

The hippocampus is involved in the formation of new memories, and is associated with learning. It tags meaning to an experience, so that we understand it more deeply. It’s like our “filing cabinet.”

The brain stem regulates involuntary actions of the body like heartbeat, breathing, and and eating/sleeping. It also sends messages throughout the body that the brain wants it to receive.

So – here’s how it all works together. An event occurs that feels dangerous. The amygdala picks up on this danger and sounds the alarm to the rest of the limbic system (which is the system in our brains that deals with emotions and memory).

The amygdala shifts us into a response of protection, or safety seeking. This is when we might experience a fight, flight, freeze or fawn response. It does this by sending signals through the brain stem to reduce functions of 47 parts of the brain and body and release stress hormones to send energy where it can be used to keep us safe (like our muscles and our heart and our lungs so we can run).

Think about it. If you’re being chased, you don’t need to access the part of your brain that knows how to crochet! You have to get out of there!

So, you stop using the rational part of the brain – the prefrontal cortex – and instead focus on survival.

Our memory center, the hippocampus, is another part of the brain that reduces function when there is danger too. It’s not needed.

Here’s the problem though – since it doesn’t have the proper resources to store information during the event, the information around it is stored in fragments. There is resulting confusion about timing, chronology, reality, and details.

This all adds up to an individual’s inability to create a narrative around the experience that makes sense.

So the experience lacks a relational home.

In other words, since the experience is fragmented, it cannot be tagged with meaning; without meaning, it can’t be filed away. I imagine it as if there is no resting place, no way to stop the experiencing and re-experiencing of the event because the search for its meaning is ongoing.

This is where trauma shows up in people’s lives long after the event and specific danger are over.

The amygdala is always on alert, remember? So, anything that reminds it of the danger event it already experienced (some call these triggers) will send the brain right back to that place and survival response.

The individual will continue to experience this danger event IN REAL TIME (neurobiology has shown that the brain literally cannot tell the difference between the event as it happened and the event as it occurs in a flashback) until the fragmented pieces around the event are regrouped into something that makes enough sense that it can be filed away.

This is why the definition of trauma – an unbearable emotional experience that lacks a relational home – is so significant. After trauma, an individual and their brain are in need of finding a relational home for their experience.

This is where work toward healing enters the picture, and it can occur through any number of different modalities employed in trauma work. A therapist helps individuals process trauma in a way that allows them to create a narrative around it, so that they can “put it away” and make sense of what happened. This is sacred and critical work essential to healing.

A coach can help an individual put the event into the larger narrative of their life. “What does it mean for you that you went through this and survived?” We can hold space for their sorrow, their fear and their struggle. We can also help our clients rename any “file” at any point with any NEW MEANING they might want, so that what was once viewed as something they have survived can be turned into a reflection of strength or a marker of a new beginning.

Trauma is universal. Trauma is unique. Trauma deserves healing. I hope this helped even just a little.

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