“Trauma is a concrete physical, cognitive, affective, and spiritual response by individuals and communities to events and situations that are objectively traumatizing.” (Burstow, 2003, pg. 1304)
The human brain is amazingly complex. It adapts in response to experience and environment and changes with age. Understanding some of these changes will increase your capacity to work with women of all ages who have survived trauma, and in particular, older women who have diverse and unique barriers in accessing help.
As a starting point, this illustration shows the entire brain from a lateral view.
Click on the labels of different regions of the brain below to learn more about related functions. You can also access the link below to colour, save, and print your own brain map.
Trauma is an event (or series of events) which causes fear, horror, or terror, along with actual or perceived lack of control. Trauma also refers to the ways in which traumatic events can disrupt functioning. Women are about twice as likely as men to experience impacts of trauma which may be characterized as symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder following any type of traumatic event (Voges and Romney, 2003).
Trauma includes: a one-time event (ie. a single sexual or physical assault); prolonged or repeat experiences (ie. interpersonal violence over decades by a partner); accumulative (ie. violence as a child, abuse, and racism) or historical events with prolonged impact (ie. colonization).
As well as individuals, entire communities as a collective whole can be traumatized. Individual trauma must be understood within the context of the broader systems of oppression and social disadvantage which impact marginalized women of all ages.
A trauma survivor may have lived through physical, sexual, emotional, and/or verbal abuse. She may have been traumatized by multiple perpetrators throughout her life. A woman may be in an immediately threatening situation that causes her to fear for her safety and/or life. We’re going to view the brain through a trauma lens, so we’ll focus on parts of the brain that are affected by fear – because when we talk about trauma, we’re talking about fear.
Fear is a fundamental reaction that’s evolved over the history of human life to protect us from threat (“Understanding the Stress Response,” 2018). Fear commands our attention. When we’re terrified, our thinking brain gives way to our emotional brain and the resulting defense cascade is automatic (Cuncic, 2018).
The brain is often divided into three parts, which are interconnected.
The neocortex is the newest part of the human brain, evolutionary speaking, and is responsible for language, learning, abstract thought, and memory.
All mammals have a limbic system, humans, tigers, and even mice.
The reptilian brain controls the body’s vital functions including heart rate, breathing, body temperature and balance.
Your prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that’s responsible for rational thinking and planning. When you decide what to prepare for a meal, you’re using your prefrontal cortex. It helps you to organize information and choose what to pay attention to; what you remember depends on what you pay attention to (Wilson, Lonsway & Archambault, 2018). When experiencing trauma, our brain chooses which details to pay attention to, and to what extent, based on our needs for survival.
Now to the emotional brain – a group of structures that form the limbic system. The limbic system, also called the mammalian brain, originated before the prefrontal cortex. We share this part of the brain with all mammals – dogs, tigers and even mice. The limbic system allows us to feel love, hate, anger, joy, and fear. When a woman is threatened, her limbic system takes over; her brain chooses how she will respond before she can logically consider the outcomes of her actions (Bailey, 2018).
Parts of the limbic system that are essential to understanding a woman’s trauma response are the amygdala, the hypothalamus, and the hippocampus.
The amygdala recognizes emotional information, such as the expressions on people’s faces, and plays a key part in conditioning – the largely unconscious learning process that has us approach things that reward us and avoid things that punish us. The amygdala is where the fear response starts, and like a smoke detector, alerts us to early signs of danger (Bailey, 2018).
Watch the supplemental AWV video online It’s Just the Toaster which explains this metaphor in further detail.
Each individual’s amygdala has a different level of sensitivity. If we think of the amygdala as a smoke detector, we might say a woman who has survived trauma has a keenly sensitive smoke detector mounted directly above a toaster, so the detector goes off frequently, even when there’s no fire. Maybe in the course of your work, you’ve seen a trauma survivor become distressed without apparent reason. She has reason. Her detector senses smoke.
The hypothalamus is a command centre in the brain. It controls breathing, blood pressure and heartbeat. When a woman encounters a threat, her amygdala signals her hypothalamus, which tells her adrenal glands to send out adrenaline and cortisol, chemicals that prepare her body for action (“Understanding the Stress Response,” 2018).
The hippocampus is critical for forming, organizing and storing memories. It also helps to link sensations with memories (Cherry, 2018). When a sound or smell or any bit of sensory information triggers a woman to recall or re-experience trauma, her hippocampus is making connections.
The Flipping Your Lid exercise shows how the prefrontal cortex and limbic system fit together. Try this now: Make a fist with your thumb inside your fingers; this is our model of the brain. Now hold your hand up so it faces you. Your thumb is the limbic system, your emotional brain (amygdala and hippocampus) and processes memory. Your fingers are prefrontal cortex, your thinking brain.
When memories of trauma are triggered or a trauma survivor feels threatened, she may flip her lid resulting in a poor connection between the prefrontal cortex (fingers) and the midbrain (thumb) and as a result, the logical, problem solving part of her brain is inaccessible (Bailey, 2018). Intense emotional reactions are likely when someone’s lid is flipped.
Food for Thought:
Have you ever “flipped your lid” at a time when it was inappropriate to express anger? How did you feel about your actions afterwards?