Chris had experienced a traumatic incident and was struggling to cope with day to day life.  What Chris did not know, was how the brain and body processes, remembers and holds on to traumatic events.

Chris was stuck until help was sought from a Counsellor, who worked with trauma.  This Counsellor helped Chris to understand what had happened.

Chris’s brain stem had been activated due to the traumatic incident. The brainstem/arousal system which regulates Chris’s basic bodily functions, such as the heart rate and breathing, had begun.  The Counsellor explained that Chris’s arousal system responded to stimuli but it  is not a thinking part of the brain.

Image illustrating brain stem been activated due to the traumatic incident - JCT Counselling for Trauma
Another part of the brain is called the limbic system. This part of Chris’s brain began working out the emotional meaning of everything that had happened to Chris.

Image illustrating the part of the brain called the limbic system - JCT Counselling for Trauma
What Chris did not know was that the limbic region had two lobes, called the Hippocampus and the Amygdala. The Amygdala was the part of Chris’s brain that acted like a smoke alarm and worked out the emotional meaning of everything that was happening to Chris at the time of the traumatic incident.

Image illustrating reactions to traumaWhilst Chris’s Hippocampus is the memory storage area of the brain, it was putting context to the traumatic events that Chris had experienced, e.g. venue, date, time. That is, what was happening next.

Image illustrating how the brain store information
The body has a survival system which is found in the brain stem, this is called Fight, Flight or Freeze.

What Chris did not know was that the Hippocampus is highly vulnerable to stress hormones and once the amygdala’s smoke alarm system was activated, cortisol was released, which would prepare Chris’s body to either fight or flight.

Image demonstrating fight or flight
Chris’s memories were fuzzy because the hippocampus had turned itself off.  The rational part of Chris’s brain, at the front, had shut down and was no longer able to work out the difference between danger and safety.

Image illustrating warning or safetyChris was equally unaware that when in danger the body could also Freeze. Freezing is the last resort response, when fight or flight do not work. The body becomes immobile (which can look like playing dead).

Image of a person frozen Illustrating flight, flight or freeze in response to a traumatic event

At the time of the incident Chris felt terror and was not able to shout for help or speak out and say, “stop”. This was because at the front of the brain, is an area called Broca’s area, this is responsible for speech, when in a state of terror, this area can be suppressed, and words cannot be spoken.

Image of a person terrified Illustrating flight, flight or freeze in response to a traumatic event
Chris’s Counsellor went on to explain about the bodies nervous system and what a key role it played during the traumatic incident.

Once Chris’s sympathetic nervous system was activated, it got ready for action, as it responded to fight or flight. (think of it like a flame going up) Therefore, Chris’s heart may have raced faster, breathing become irregular, an increase in blood pressure, pupils dilated and extra blood supply went to the muscles.

Image illustrating sympathetic nervous system activated

However, if Chris froze during the trauma, the parasympathetic nervous system would kick in, (think of it like a water sprinkler coming down on the flame)  which would make Chris’s breathing rate slow down, slow the heart rate, eye pupils would constrict and less blood would be supplied around the body to help with survival.  During this time, Chris’s body would also produce it’s own pain numbing drug, called endogenous opioids.

Image illustrating how trauma gets stuck in the body
​Chris also learnt about an amazing nerve in the body, which was called the ‘vagus nerve.’  This nerve connects from the gut to the brain, it is responsible for wellness and/or disease.  It was at the centre of Chris’s nervous system.  The vagus nerve is made up so that 80% of it is sensory, which meant that when Chris had the traumatic incident, this nerve was activated and was sending  messages to the brain that all was not okay.  It became a feedback loop, as well as reinforcing a message to the brain. Trauma was stuck in the body.

Chris’s Counsellor went on to explain about the body’s memory system.

Image of someone looking through old photos
There are two types of memories: explicit and implicit, these memory systems distinguish what type of information is stored and how  they are retrieved.

Explicit memory is used every day, when we recall appointments or information for an exam; we can consciously recollect and give an explanation.

Image to illustrate explicit memory
Implicit memory has to do with the storage and recall of learned procedures and behaviours. It appears to be present before birth.  Implicit memory makes it possible to learn how to walk without thinking about it.  This kind of memory is unconscious and unintentional.  You do not have to recall how to perform certain tasks.

Image illustrating how implicit memory works
The information on the memory system helped Chris to understand the basics.  However, Chris was still unsure about the trauma memories.

Image illustrating how traumatic memories are assembled in the brain
​Chris learnt from the Counsellor that traumatic memories are assembled differently than other types of memory. Therefore, recollection of events can be difficult. One reason for this is that traumatic memories are often kept as implicit and disconnected from explicit memories, which is why Chris may not have had words to describe the trauma.

Memories of trauma can be programmed, just like other memories, both explicitly and implicitly. However, for Chris, the memories are missing the explicit information necessary to make sense of the distressing bodily sensations.

Chris now had a better understanding of what had happened, along with the impact that trauma had on the body, the brain and the nervous system. Together, over a period of time Chris and the Counsellor were able to heal the mind and body, restoring wellness to Chris.