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Trauma

  • Trauma stimulates the fight-flight-or-freeze response, much like anger, fear and anxiety. 
  • This is great – when your life is in danger!  As cortisol & adrenaline are released, they prepare your body to protect itself… to run away or to stand your ground & fight.  However, this becomes self-defeating when it’s not a life or death situation. For instance when someone raises their voice or challenges you, or there is a trigger for your drug addiction.  Drugs affect the brain in a similar manner – when you are craving, your rational brain shuts down, and your survival impulses take control. 
  • You REACT instead of RESPONDING and its usually due to self-defeating defence mechanisms which result in the opposite of what you are trying to achieve.
  • When a traumatic memory is triggered (or a trigger for drug use), the emotional brain (primitive limbic system) takes control and the rational (neocortex or higher brain) shuts down.  This is why we react on a survival impulse instead of thinking through the consequences. 
  • Images of brain scans taken while addicts are showed images of drug use or of traumatic triggers actually showed dissociation happen in the brain.
  • When they remembered a traumatic event, the left frontal cortex shut down, particularly Broca's area (the centre for speech).   
  • But areas of the right hemisphere, associated with emotional states and autonomic arousal, lit up, particularly the area around the amygdala, which might be called the brain's "smoke detector". 
  • This suggests that when people relive their traumatic experiences, the frontal lobes become impaired and, as a result, they have trouble thinking and speaking.
  • The same thing happens in the brains of drug users exposed to stimuli – the amygdala lights up, showing that the fight-or-flight response is triggered.
  • That’s why it feels like you HAVE to use… or you’ll die.  It’s a survival response… but it’s a lie!  Cravings generally only last 45 seconds, if you don’t feed into them.
  • The good news is that our rational brains have not left the building – we just need to learn how to re-engage them.  We can do this by engaging techniques like mindfulness, deep breathing, & visualisation.  Anger & anxiety management techniques work, as they reduce the physical symptoms triggered by the fight-or-flight response, like heart palpitations and increased respiration.
  • We also discussed different types of trauma, and how these can affect us differently.
  • Hormones involved in stress also play a role, as do all the neurotransmitters in the brain, like dopamine and serotonin.  Intense repressed trauma weakens the immune system over time, as the body is in a continual state of stress.
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is based on the belief that crises are rooted in faulty thinking about an event (eg blaming oneself) rather than event itself
  • Awareness of the beliefs surrounding an event include recognizing irrational self-defeating cognitions (thought patterns).  This is partially what we are doing through the stepwork process. Challenging and disputing these flawed beliefs will have a subsequent effect on behaviour, which assists in regaining control of life.
  • We can change how we feel and how we act by changing our thoughts.
  • We can learn to re-evaluate situations and replace flawed beliefs with more rational thoughts, positive affirmations or with Scripture.
  • The brain is remarkable as we can heal around damaged areas – due to neural plasticity, we have the ability to form new neural pathways.  There is hope!

By Belinda Bilton

Counsellor at the Adult Centre

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