The Science of Trauma
Everyday we live through trauma. We do not recognize this trauma because it does not occur to us in any obvious way. It's just there. Enigmatically
present in behaviors, occurring so surreptitiously that we barely even knrecognize ow that we've been hurt - inheriting a pain from a time we can't
Trauma is a word that's often defined as a severe condition. It can be serious "head trauma", or trauma to the kidneys, or the lungs, or it can be
emotional trauma, the kind that occurs in people with post traumatic stress disorders. But this is an arbitrary definition. The reason we distinguish
between trauma and ordinary emotional pain, is because trauma is a very obvious, very persistent emotional disorganization. But this does not mean
that people aren't "disorganized" and "dysregulated" by traumas that have occurred to them throughout their lives.
Take your run of the mill inhibitions. Most people have them, whether it be a discomfort with your shortness, a problem with your weight, insecurity
with your intelligence; or a sense of emotional weakness, a nagging worry that people don't like you; or even more subtly, an unwillingness to speak
up in front of groups, a fear to ask that woman out, or the fear that you wont be successful, wont keep that special man, etc.
These inhibitions are traumas. Some place in your brain, in the hippocampus, lies a set of neurons that associate with a set of neurons in the
amygdala, which link up with neurons in the brain stem. The autonomic system keeps the brain aware - a process called neuroception - to "threats" in
the environment. For whatever reason, probably related to a previous experience, your brain learned to associate "fear" with this particular context.
Your hippocampus and amygdala sees a girl, and reads "threat, be vigilant". The explicit "cognitive" memory for why you should feel a sense of threat
is gone. But nevertheless, a few brain regions are automatically activated by the regulatory functions of the brain stem, particularly a region called
the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve in mammals is bifurcated. In reptiles - our evolutionary ancestors - the vagus nerve strictly has end points in the body - no facial
muscles are enervated. Reptiles have extremely conservative metabolisms, so they eat less, and spend most of their time in a parasympathetic state.
Mammals conversely are more social, and therefore need a nervous system that mediates quick mobilization. This is what the evolutionary newer part of
the vagus nerve - the nucleus ambiguus - does. The nucleus ambiguus in humans has efferents in the cranial nerves, as well as in the pharynx, larynx,
Stephen Porges PhD discovered that people who admitted to having experienced past abuse have low amplitude RSA. RSA is respiratory sinus arrhythmia,
which is the effect breathing has on heart rate. When someone has low baseline RSA and low reactive RSA, this essentially means that they are less
calm and relaxed when inactive, and experience less intense emotions and ease when active. Conversely, people with normal social behavior have "high
amplitude" RSA. They more easily respond to social cues, and feel more relaxed afterwards. This discovery is known as the "polyvagal theory", a huge
breakthrough in the field of interpersonal neurobiology, with pretty amazing implications for therapists.
The nucleus ambiguus is the part of the brain that connects the cortex - our higher, cognitive functions - with the physical body. Heart rate changes
with what were thinking about because the nucleus ambiguus sends signals to the caratoid nerve via the ancient reptilian vagus. When trauma occurs,
the nucleus ambiguus - the new mammalian adaptation - breaks down. In mammals, this nerve is myelinated - which means cells called oligodendrocytes,
essentially fats, surrounds the axon of the neuron, insulating it, which speeds up electrical transmissions. The reason were able to say "hey, whats
up, how are you doing? Hows the wife and kids?" so quickly, is because the nucleus ambiguus directly coopts autonomic function, changes heart rate,
breathing, to support quick sympathetic mobilization. Endocrine activity is too slow for social engagement purposes. It is ancillary to the specific
duties of the vagal nerve (even though all emotional brain events are largely mediated by neurochemicals like seretonin, dopamine, oxytocin,
The most resistant psychological disorders are those which exhibit the lowest RSA - major depression and post traumatic stress disorders. These
disorders could be physiologically defined as being disorders of vagal function. In people who have these two ruthless conditions, there is a severe
depression of nucleus ambiguus activity. Their entire experience is regulated by the parasympathetic nervous system, which in effect limits their
experience to very low energy emotional states, or a complete "depression" of bodily vitality. A new treatment for people with PTSD and major
depression is vagal electrical stimulation - zapping the nucelus ambiguus every 30 seconds to stimulate a normal connection between higher cortical
areas and lower brain stem areas - which is experienced as more vitality coming to the mind.
The future of psychology is bright. The new science of interpersonal psychology coupled with positive psychology, if implemented in our schools, will,
I believe, have a major positive impact on the developlment of humanity. Yoga, which has been practiced for over 3 thousand years, has been vindicated
by somatic neuropsychologists, who see it as a very effective treatment for dissociation.
Dissociation occurs all the time. It occurs when were in a daze, it occurs when we lose focus, it occurs when we get anxious; but it is a constant
feature of someone with post traumatic stress disorder. In people like this, experiencing "emotion", having your ideas enlivened by affective
realities, energies permeating your mental experience, is blunted. Dissociation can literally be thought of as "disassociation from emotion". The mind
no longer feels the energies of the body. And mentally, experience feels exceptionally "cerebral".
Our brains neuroceptive systems - controlled by brain stem regions - scan the environments, and without our input, it gears our body up for reactions,
biasing our conscious minds to feel "this" or that way, independent of our actually even passing a cognitive judgement, in any particular
environmental context. Evolutionarily speaking, this outmoded system served solid purposes. Before civilization emerged 10,000 or so years ago, homo
sapiens evolved in a dangerous world, where being on guard, being aware of dangers, was a basic need of biological homeostasis. Dangers lurked
everywhere, in the foods we ate, the animals we came by, and the strangers we encountered. Our brains thus developed with a bias towards negativity.
For the mammalian body, sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems have developed to support environmental and biological needs while maintaining
stable bodily energy; we call this process "metabolism".
If an animal (or a human being) experiences danger, it has 3 responses before it: Fight, Flight or Freeze. The first 2 responses are mediated by
sympathetic and endocrine systems. But the body cannot maintain this response forever. There is a bodily limit: our bodies tire eventually,
edit on 8-11-2013 by Astrocyte because: (no reason given)