Trauma and how it's processed (or not) through the brain

Collaborator: Alexie Foster
Published: 04/04/2023, 3:47 AM
Edited: 04/10/2023, 1:16 PM

This article discusses various types of traumas and their causations. If you are a trauma survivor, we encourage you to take the necessary steps for your emotional safety prior to or after reading this article. This may include seeking comfort from a friend or family member, calling the Crisis Line at 988, or texting the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

(NATIONAL) Trauma is not a one size fits all experience. There are many different kinds of trauma people endure and need to resolve in order to live their best lives. Navigating trauma is also made more difficult by the fact that many trauma survivors endure chronic traumatic events, as opposed to one-time occurrences.

When people think of trauma, oftentimes they consider the worst-case scenarios of trauma: watching someone die, physical or sexual abuse or assault, war, natural disasters, or the sudden loss of a loved one. These events are known as Type 1 trauma (major trauma events), but there are other kinds of trauma, as well, including: 

Type 2 trauma (minor trauma event) is an emotionally difficult event that is not necessarily a life-or-death situation, such as going through a divorce, losing a pet or a loved one, or job loss. 

Complex trauma refers to the experience of on-going trauma. This could be a history of on-going Type 1 and/or Type 2 traumas. In childhood, complex trauma is often experienced when there is a history of any kind of abuse (physical, emotional, sexual), neglect, or abandonment. 

Historical trauma (generational trauma) refers to the group experience of trauma within a community, such as genocide, forced relocation, or enslavement. 

Secondary trauma refers to experiencing a trauma response when hearing about another person’s traumatic event or experience. 

Recently, there was an adjustment to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (commonly referred to as the DSM-5), a book utilized by mental health and psychology professionals to diagnose mental health disorders. The DSM-5 now defines trauma as an event requiring “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.” 

Some clinicians who specialize in trauma disagree with the current definition, firstly because this definition speaks to Type 1 trauma only. 

Secondly, many believe it is not the actual event and circumstances that define a trauma, but rather the perception of danger and the brain’s response to an event or circumstance. People experience trauma when they feel unsafe in a particular situation. This doesn’t always mean the situation is an actual life or death experience. It means that’s how a person’s brain interprets it. 

To understand trauma and how it affects the brain, one must first understand the “triune brain.” Before birth, the brain develops on three levels. Each of these levels of the brain houses different and very important roles for human functioning. 

The first part of the brain that develops is the lower brain, often referred to as the reptilian or lizard brain. It is the most primal part of the brain, geared for survival. This is the part of the brain we tap into when we are in “survival mode.” Its job is to process as much sensory information, or information gathered through the senses, as possible. 

The second level of the brain surrounds the lizard brain and is known as the limbic system. This interior area is the emotional system of the brain. It is in charge of interpreting information and processing that information as quickly as possible. It also houses the part of the brain that regulates emotions. 

The third level of the brain is the cerebral cortex, or “the thinking brain”. This is where rational processing, decision making and goal making all take place. It’s where a person’s personality is developed and housed. Moving into action also takes place at this level. 

In healthy brain processing, one would gather sensory information through the lower brain, process and regulate emotional responses to the stimuli through the limbic system and respond to the stimuli accordingly through the cerebral cortex. 

Of course, it doesn’t always happen this way. Sometimes instinct takes over. When emotions are too heightened to be regulated, a primal reaction occurs, prompted by the desire to survive. This is known as a trauma response. 

When someone experiences trauma, and especially chronic trauma, the first level brain system will normalize taking over in times of stress, deeming the second and third level systems non-essential. Often times over and over again. Without emotion regulation and rational processing, mental health declines. This can even impact physical health, as everything is linked to the brain.  

Different traumas present themselves in different ways, including but not limited to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or a stressor-related disorder, anxiety, depression, chronic fatigue or pain, Fibromyalgia, personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder, poor memory, strained relationships and trust, dissociative/identity disorder, or depersonalization/derealization disorder. 

The good news is people have the power to overcome any and all traumas. The next and final story in this trauma series describes how people can resolve and heal from trauma, so that they can lead more fulfilling and healthy lives.

This story is the second story in a three-part trauma education publication, as part of VNN’s 2023 FATE Learning Series: Trauma Informed Business Development. Alexie Foster will be a guest speaker at the 2023 FATE in-person event in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, on April 20, 2023. Don’t want to wait for FATE for trauma tips? Request access to Alexie’s free grounding series. To register for free tickets to the 2023 FATE in-person event or take part in the series online, visit the FATE webpage


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