Trauma, the brain and consequences and PTSD

Trauma, the brain and consequences and PTSD

Trauma, the brain and consequences and PTSD
Have you ever found yourself telling someone after a traumatic experience to “…just get over it” or “it was not that bad” or perhaps you’ve been on the receiving end of such commentary.

Often these comments are born out of frustration or the lack of anything else to say. However, not being able to “just get over it” may be out of your conscious control.

Some people may have grown up being told to not feel, cowboys don’t cry or showing emotion is weakness. Statements like this are fundamentally flawed and ultimately harmful to psychological well-being.

Following a traumatic experience some people may even begin to admonish themselves or tell themselves they are weak or pathetic as they struggle to regain normal functioning following, their traumatic encounter.

The truth however is not so simple. In fact people are usually helpless in the face of trauma and its frightening aftermath.

So how does our brain process information?

Basically our brain has two information-processing systems one hot (amygdala) and one cool (hippocampus).

The cool one is cognitive (thinking); the hot one is emotional (feeling).

◾The cool system records information in a controlled, unemotional and neutral manner, elaborates on autobiographical (first-person) events, complete with spatial-temporal context (stores events in time sequence e.g. it was around 5pm when she called or I was at John’s birthday party when I heard about 9/11).
◾The hot system is closely linked to low-level fear responses; it is highly emotional, acts without much thought, inflexible, keyed to instinct and less easy to control (following a car accident people will often not be able to recall “what exactly happened, I recall being scared/frightened next thing I knew the car had flipped and it was upside down”).

Everybody has a hot and cool system: the cool system stores the context (circumstances) of the events and the hot system contributes the emotional experience of events (specifically the ones associated with fear).

In moments of fright/fear/panic the logical (cool) mind will switch off and the more instinct driven (hot) mind will take over.

As one begins to calm down following the incident the logical (cool) mind takes over again and begins to make sense of what just happened.


Trauma breaks this normal processing pattern. It forces the cool system to switch off and the hot system takes over.

Moreover, trauma often forces the brain to corrupt its memory formation and storage process (as the hot system remains on).

It can force one to believe that one is reacting to the present, where as in fact, one is superimposing past experiences onto the present.

This becomes rather problematic as the hot system (remaining on) continually corrupts the cool systems information and memory processing sequences.

Our every experience is something we create inside of our heads. Reality is not experienced directly because the brain filters all sensory input.

It is continually deleting, distorting and generalizing our perception of reality.

Moreover, as we seek to alleviate or escape disturbing thoughts or forget painful experiences, the brain will create more acceptable thoughts/memories, often convoluted and contrived, in order to facilitate day-to-day survival.

This often causes people to re-experience situations as if they where happening “now” even when “now” is a memory fragment from the past. This diminishes the ability to separate “now and safe” from “now and danger.”

The cool system puts memories in time order (So you don’t confuse today with five years ago). However, the cool system is very weakly enabled during trauma.

Thus the brain fails to put the right time stamp on the trauma experienced. Consequently, a stimulus can evoke a hot memory, causing us to relive the original low-level response. (e.g. following being high-jacked at a traffic light, you may become anxious every time you again have to stop at one; the emotions keep flooding back forcing one to re-experience the event. Some people begin to take routes that have no traffic lights or even refuse to drive again).

This re-experiencing is not a conscious choice and often the more one tries to ignore the intrusive thoughts the more invasive they tend to become.

The longer one continues to “live the past as if it is the present” the greater chance there is of permanent damage.

This heightened state of awareness and anxiety may eventually push the brain to extremes, damaging it and culminate in PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).


Trauma is not always one big event and it  may often be a culmination of many small incidents or exposures e.g. police officers confront traumatic incidents/events daily.

Trauma is real, painful and potentially disabling if minimized, ignored or bottled-up. It is not a sign of weakness if one begins to suffer from anxiety, compulsive/intrusive thoughts or sleep disturbances following a traumatic event/experience.

It is the body/mind’s way of highlighting that a disturbance (traumatic experience/event) has created disharmony in the system.

Research has highlighted how even brief psychological intervention following traumatic experiences can alleviate many negative symptoms experienced or help to “just make sense of it all”.

So think twice before telling someone to “just get over it” or “it was not that bad”.

For them it really may have been “that bad”, it could have forced them to confront a traumatic experience/event they had forgotten as children or just something they have suppressed and denied.

Each individual person experiences the world in vastly different ways. Getting help is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of maturity and respect for your self and those that love you.

Criteria of PTSD:

◾The person goes through or sees something that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury. The person responds to this with intense fear, helplessness or horror.
◾The person then relives this traumatic event through dreams, or recollections. He or she can behave as if the trauma is actually happening right then, and can react strongly to events that even resemble the original trauma.
◾The person tries desperately to avoid this, and to avoid anything associated with the trauma, in fact, may not even remember the trauma yet still react strongly to certain stimuli.
◾The person often has difficulty sleeping and concentrating. He or she may be hyper-vigilant.
◾All this lasts longer than a month
◾Causes significant distress in daily life.

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