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Episode 112: How Trauma Affects Your Brain (Willpower May Not Be Your Problem After All)

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For years I've said that the negative emotions and experiences we don't process and release get stored in the body. Sometimes as fat, sometimes as illness, sometimes as injury.

It always sounded 'woo woo' when it came out of my mouth, but finally I've discovered a book that scientifically backs up this intuition. 

'The Body Keeps the Score' by Bessel Van Der KolK, MD, is one of the most comprehensive books I've ever read on trauma, how it affects the brain and body, and how to heal deep-seated wounds.

And before you shrug this episode off thinking, I don't have any trauma. I've never been abused, or assaulted, or abandoned, think again. We all have trauma that needs healing, sometimes big, sometimes small.

Are you a people-pleaser? A perfectionist? Do you struggle with anxiety or depression? Do you have a hard time concentrating? Do you have an unhealthy relationship with food? Do you cope with stress in ways you know aren't healthy? All of these (and many more) can be signs of unresolved trauma. 

Now, I'll be honest, this blog post is a bit different than the norm. Usually I have a clear map with 3-10 straight forward tips.

But this book was so robust with information, I had to split it into 3 episodes, and below are basically just notes and quotes from the book that will help guide us through the conversation. 

So if you want a more coherent presentation of these ideas, I recommend you listen, don't read! 

How Trauma Affects the Brain

  • Traumatized people tend to project their trauma on everything around them, making it difficult to decipher what's going on around them, to feel safe, and to trust their surroundings. For example, if a woman who sees someone taking a walk, she may not simply see someone out for stroll, she may see her next attacker. 
  • Broca's area is one of the speech centers of the brain, without a functioning broca's area you're unable to put thoughts and feelings into words. This area of the brain has been shown to shut down when you're feeling triggered. This explains why, when having fights with my ex, I couldn't find the words to communicate my point of view even though in my mind it was perfectly clear and sound. 
  • Memories of trauma shut down the left part of the brain associated with reason and logic. 
  • "The most important job of the brain is to ensure our survival... everything else is secondary. In order to do that, brains need to do the following: generate internal signals that register what our bodies need (such as food, rest, protection, sex, and shelter), create a map of the world to point us to where we can go to satisfy those needs, generate the necessary energy and actions to get us there, warn us of dangers and opportunities along the way, and adjust our actions based on the requirements of the moment... Every brain structure that I discuss has a role to play in these essential functions. And as we will see, trauma can interfere with every one of them. "
  • There are different parts of the brain:
    • The reptilian brain (or brain stem) which is responsible for eating, sleeping, waking, crying, breathing, feeling temperature, hunger, wetness, and pain, and ridding the body of toxins via our excrements.
      • When these things are disrupted like when you can't register hunger, you're deprived of sleep, your digestion feels stuck, or someone touching you makes you want to scream, it can send the whole body into disequilibrium. 
    • The brain stem and hypothalamus together control and balance the heart, lungs, endocrine, and immune systems.
    • The limbic system (mammalian brain) which is the base of emotions, the monitor for danger, the judge of what's enjoyable versus frightening, the arbiter for what is or is not important. And it is shaped in response to experience.
    • The reptilian brain + limbic system make up the 'emotional brain' who's main task is to protect you. When it's activated, it sends out hormones that give you visceral sensations (like queasiness, or butterflies) that will interfere with whatever you're trying to focus on. This process affects what we choose to eat, where we like to sleep, what music we prefer, our hobbies, who we like and who we dislike.  The more intense the response from the emotional brain, the harder it is for the logical brain to override its impulses. Add onto that, trauma makes it significantly harder to resist those emotional instincts.
    • The outermost part of the brain (the neocortex) which helps us use words, control our sphincters, understand abstract and symbolic ideas, plan, be in tune with each other, absorb vast arrays of information, plan and reflect, imagine and play out future scenarios. 
  • When one brain circuit fires repeatedly, it can become your default. If you grow up feeling loved and protected, your default brain setting may be to explore with curiosity. Meanwhile if you grow up with fear and anger around you, your default may be to ward off danger.
  • Kids who experience trauma and neglect are taught early on that it doesn't matter what they do, nothing will change their environment or experience. This can create an adult with an external locus of control (believing your failures or successes are due to external factors out of your control). 
  • Infants with inconsistent communication patterns with their mothers at 18 months grew up to struggle with self worth and self-destructive habits like binge eating and promiscuous sex. 

 If you found this interesting, your mind will be blown next week when we dive into how trauma affects the body. So don't forget to subscribe to make sure you get notified when that comes out! 


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