How the Brain Creates Trauma and PTSD

Trauma is a Threat to Life
in a State of Helplessness

Trauma is a real or a perceived life threat in a state of helplessness. This triggers a series of message systems in the limbic or mammalian brain that allow us to evaluate a danger and then institute a response of self-preservation. It does this mainly through the amygdala, the fight-flight center in the mammalian brain, which helps us assess danger and then begin a response to overcome a threat.

PTSD, trauma, trauma healing, help healing trauma, somatic experiencing, SE, Peter Levine, Sometimes, however, one cannot escape the threat. Then the brain initiates what’s called a freeze response, which has some survival benefits: it allows us to not feel the pain of injuries. In nature, it can also fool a predator into thinking that the prey animal is already dead, which it may then ignore walk away.

A problem develops with this helplessness when the normal recovery from the freeze response–a discharge of autonomic and physical energy–doesn’t occur. Then we have a conditioned response whereby all the body memories and sensations of that experience are stored in the survival brain.

The brain learns from each of these threatening experiences what is dangerous and creates a repertoire of survival-based instincts and responses. If you freeze and don’t get rid of that energy, it will become stuck in your brain as a conditioned survival response, albeit a false one. (The freeze only occurs when the primary responses of fight and flight don’t work.) It is the storage of those false responses that creates the structure of trauma.

So the brain stores all the responses to traumatic events. This helps us evaluate danger in new situations and determine whether we need to act on it by getting away, by fighting, or by freezing. But the false responses in the brain disrupt our otherwise normal responses of flight and fight and cause us to jump right into the freeze.

If you can discharge the freeze response, it completes the act of self-preservation in the unconscious mind. As far as the brain is concerned, you’ve survived the threat. The event is over and no residual effects remain.

But if that doesn’t happen, then you freeze when you are later faced with a stressful situation, even if it is something minor like a cross boss. When that discharge hasn’t taken place in a proper way, your past experiences now affect your future way of assessing danger and options.

Trauma and PTSD

Trauma, then, is a corruption of the mind because those stored memories are false memories–the event is over, but the survival brain thinks the event is continuing to be present. You think that you’re in the past, and any event that resembles that memory will send you into a fight and flight response in an exaggerated fashion even though it’s not a real danger.

That reaction to past events as if they are present is what characterizes trauma and PTSD–flashbacks, jumping and startling when you hear a loud sound, or seeing a red car and going into a fight-flight response because you were once hit by a red car 20 years ago. All these false memories are the ever-changing structure of trauma that imprisons the mind in bars of the past. When something like that happens, you lose track of the present moment and become imprisoned by the past.

Trauma/PTSD and Dissociation

Dissociation is the hallmark of the imprisoned mind and its freeze. When a person is dissociated, they’re out of body, confused, numb–frozen. When you’re chronically dissociated, you tend to have syndromes of the viscera like stomach, bowel, heart, and lung problems.

Dissociation is composed of all the stored false memories with their survival responses that accompanied a traumatic event, especially an overwhelming one that was repeated constantly. Combat in war is a good example, where combat is repeated over and over again. All the memories, sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of those traumatic events are stored in unconscious memory. That includes all the physical sensations and emotional states of rage, terror, and fear. All of these are stored together and linked to one another.

Anytime one experiences any aspect of that state, the whole batch emerges and you are dissociated, frozen. You are in the past and not in the present moment. So when you are dissociated, you’re not fully conscious. You’re living in those past states with all the feelings of that earlier trauma.

Somatic Experiencing and Trauma/PTSD

With Somatic Experiencing, however, the filaments that make up the trauma structure can be accessed and the energy discharged slowly and completely, disentangling the threads one by one. Facing them head on, a common practice in too many trauma therapies, will only activate all the elements and bind the entire complex tighter. This little bit at a time is one of the aspects of Somatic Experiencing Trauma therapy that make it so effective.

Doing nothing, or just coping with the symptoms—as so many victims of trauma do—will only feed the complex and expand its grip on the body, mind, and spirit.

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