One of the most influential things I learned through therapy is about what trauma does to the brain.
Our brains are wired in pathways. Experiences are linked to feelings and beliefs. The more powerful the experience the stronger the pathway and the more deeply rooted the feeling or belief.
When we experience trauma our body goes into “protection mode”. This is also more commonly known as “fight, flight, or freeze”. The brain is flooded with energy and is on high alert for danger. Everything that happens during trauma becomes strongly rooted in the brain, which is why traumatic experiences can be so difficult to move past.
The brain likes to learn, it likes patterns, and it likes to do the same things over and over. After the trauma has passed many people experience triggers. This is when something similar to the traumatic event happens and the brain searches for a pattern, “I know what this means! Last time I went into protection mode so that’s what I’ll do again!” The brain processes the trigger and is once again flooded with energy and the person may feel as though they’re living the trauma all over again. The trigger could be anything. A smell, a sound, a location, an image. It doesn’t even have to be exactly the same, just kind of sort of the same, and the brain runs with it.
It should be said that the brain’s ability to go into “protection mode” is very important. It helps us to quickly assess and react to danger and to increase our ability to get to safety. However, it isn’t a helpful “mode” when the brain inaccurately interprets the presence of danger. For example, let’s say you were in a car accident and you were the driver. Your brain may have interpreted this as “if I drive a car, something bad will happen.” Logically we know this is not inherently true, but if you were to try and get into the driver’s seat again sometime after the accident your brain might alert you to danger. You may start to panic or feel afraid and you may even have flashbacks of the accident.
Knowing this has helped me to understand people in my life who have experienced significant trauma, especially if it was during childhood. Trauma during childhood almost always leaves the individual with deep seated beliefs about life, love, relationships and their own existence and place in the world. It also helped me to understand that the people around us have all sorts of triggers and sensitivities linked to trauma or significant experiences in their past.
If I see someone have (what I consider) an overreaction or inappropriate response to a situation, I can pause and recognize that this person is sensing something I am not. In this moment their life experience says something different to them than it does to me. Knowing this has allowed me to be calm, patient and understanding with those around me.
So how do we rewire the brain? If the pathways created through trauma are so strong and the beliefs to them so deeply rooted, how can we fix it?
The first step I learned was to talk myself through it. If my brain alerts me to danger I can pause and assess my surroundings. Am I safe? Am I really in danger? Or is my brain misinterpreting the situation? If I can see that I’m safe I start talking to myself about it, either out loud or in my mind. “I am safe. I feel afraid but I am not in danger. I am remembering the trauma but these are just memories and they cannot hurt me. It has been [length of time] since the event and I am ok now.”
These phrases are called affirmations and they are massively powerful and a key tool to rewiring your brain. Affirmations are specific to each individual. Just as trauma affects each person differently, affirmations will resonate differently with each person. As you build a list of your own affirmations keep the language positive.
As you recite these affirmations to yourself daily, even when you aren’t experiencing flashbacks or anxiety, you will begin forming new pathways in your brain. Over time, the strong pathways that were created during trauma will become used less and less and the new helpful pathways you create will become stronger. The brain likes patterns and consistency and will eventually abandon the “trauma pathways” in preference to the “affirmation pathways.”
Overcoming trauma has many facets and can be incredibly difficult. It is easy to become frustrated and angry in the process. This happened so long ago! I’m over it! Why does this keep happening? Why is this still tripping me up? It is important to know that this is not your fault! You didn’t do anything wrong then and you aren’t doing anything wrong now.
Your brain is a powerful organ. It simply learned something huge and impactful, but steadily and consistently shepherding your mind into a new and healthier direction will also leave a lasting impact. Trauma hits the brain like an earthquake, cracking open fissures in the ground and leaving devastation in its wake; whereas affirmations work like a stream, slowly and beautifully carving out new paths in the landscape.
So be patient and kind with yourself. Rewiring the brain is a tough and often long undertaking. You are transforming the way your brain works using the power of your own thoughts. If the task at hand feels too daunting, add this affirmation to your list: “I am the master of my own mind and I have the capacity to overcome anything.”
Contact Amara today to book a life coaching appointment and learn how to apply practical and effective strategies to help you with triggers and to move forward in your life. www.AmaraPrince.com