Hurricanes, mass shootings, war, famine, cancer, car accidents…it seems like everywhere we turn we are bombarded by negative or upsetting events. The phrase “traumatic event” is often attached to these kinds of stories, and trauma is currently an area of study and research in numerous professional fields, including mental health and education. But what exactly is trauma, and what does it do to the brain of a child?
A traumatic event is any incident experienced by someone that is perceived to be dangerous or that threatens serious injury or death. It could be a large-scale disaster or may only happen to an individual. When someone experiences trauma, they lose their sense of control and safety and frequently become hyperaware of their surroundings. Trauma is a sensory experience, so the body remembers the event even if the individual doesn’t have words to describe what happened. It is also a very individual experience, so people that have experienced the same traumatic event may have different reactions in the aftermath. Some people return to normal functioning within a few days or weeks, while others may have difficulty for years afterward.
There has been extensive research into the effects of trauma on the brain. Studies show there are three major parts of the brain involved in a response to trauma. The first part is the brain stem, often referred to as the “reptilian brain.” This part of the brain takes care of bodily functions that we need to survive (e.g. regulating heartbeat, lung function, and levels of arousal). The brain stem also maintains energy levels for the other parts. The limbic is the second part of the brain impacted by trauma. The limbic is largely responsible for emotions and relationships/attachment to others. It works with the brain stem to assess situations and determine if those situations are good or bad.
Three important parts of the limbic system are (a) hypothalamus, the command center for hormones, (b) amygdala, the emotional switchboard, and (c) hippocampus, or the memory maker. The final trauma impacted brain part is the cortex, or the outer layer of the brain, which controls rational thinking.
When we are calm, all three parts of the brain are working in sync and in harmony. When a child experiences a trauma, there is a disconnect between these parts of the brain, and emotions take over.
Here is what happens in the brain when a child experiences a traumatic event:
Brain stem- This part of the brain initiates the “fight, flight, or freeze” response when in times of stress, or trauma.
Limbic system- When a child experiences a traumatic event, the hypothalamus releases higher levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone.” Higher levels of cortisol results in higher alertness to danger. When a child experiences trauma, the amygdala may go into overdrive and cause fear responses to even “normal” situations, such as doors slamming or loud voices. The hippocampus may stitch together memories of the traumatic event in a way that causes the child to be more fearful.
Cortex-There is a disconnect between the cortex and the other parts of the brain. This may make it hard for a child to describe an experience.
Dan Siegel is a psychologist that has conducted significant research on the effects of trauma and other types of events on the brain. He has written several books on this topic including The Whole Brain Child and Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. Dr Siegel describes a great way to use your hand as a model of the brain to describe what happens when a child experiences a temper tantrum or is stuck on a negative emotion. In this model, the wrist represents the spinal cord rising from the backbone and supporting the brain. The inner brain stem is represented by your palm. The thumb represents the limbic system and you can simulate its approximate position when you rest your thumb across your palm. Curling your fingers back over the top creates the cortex in its place.
In the wake of a trauma, a child’s cortex is disconnected, or the fingers of the “hand brain” are flipped up. The emotional parts of the brain are running the show and higher-level thinking is not part of a child’s response. Living in a fear-activated state of hyper-awareness causes a child to be quick to anger. In their subconscious efforts to self-protect, a child might be viewed as defiant, disrespectful or overly aggressive. Other children may appear to be zoning out or drifting off following a traumatic event. These children are seen as shutting down, but their brain is telling them, ‘you need to be safe.’ This has come to be called “flipping your lid.” When a child is in this elevated state, using language may not be an effective tool to help them calm down and self-regulate.
But everything is not lost! As trauma is a sensory experience, using kinesthetic strategies, such as deep breathing, yoga, physical exercise, and other activities that engage the senses can help a child reach a calmer place where they can process their emotions and their experiences. Play therapy is also an excellent option!
For more information about trauma, check out The National Child Traumatic Stress Network at www.nctsn.org.
For more information about Dan Siegel and his brain model, check out his books: The Whole Brain Child, Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation or his website: https://www.drdansiegel.com/