Your Brain on Trauma

A few months ago, a pickup truck turned in front of a motor scooter just 50 feet ahead of me on my own bike. The rider braked but slammed into the truck at maybe 5 to 10 miles an hour. He appeared a bit dazed but stayed on his feet, bystanders quickly coming to help.

Afterwards I noted that while it was only a minor accident, a picture was now indelibly painted into my memory: the rider, wearing a lime-green shirt, arms flying up to catch the impact, slamming into the white truck. Twenty years from now I will most likely not remember typing this article, but I will retain that image.

Recently I asked “Nan”, 25 and with a left forearm completely scarred from years of self-cutting, what some of her worst memories were. Nan had started out very guarded and to some, threatening: her income sources had been drug dealing and pimping other girls. But having spent a few years working to slowly earn Nan’s trust, I knew I could ask. “So many!” she exclaimed.

“Tell me a couple,” I pressed.

“I was raped at 15,” Nan began, then added, “When I was 13, I watched about 30 guys rape my friend.” To our team, reports like these are sadly and disturbingly common.

Brain science has come a long way since my B.A. in psychology in 1979. We now have a pretty good understanding of what happens when the brain goes through a traumatic experience. “Write this one down!” our amygdala, there to protect us, shouts not only to the brain but to nerves connected throughout our bodies. The greater the fear, the more permanent the paint recording all five senses.

Most of the time and in healthy people, this works like an immune system. We become more careful. But when one experiences severe and/or repeated trauma, a number of unhealthy things start to happen that don’t just go away. Any one of the five senses can trigger a fear response, often without our full awareness. We may feel anxious, angry, or apathetic, but not know why.

The worst of all is repeated trauma, involving helplessness, that occurs randomly to a child. Brain and body lock into a perpetual state of fear. Life becomes survival from constant threat. She lashes out or withdraws, with growing shame over her irrational behavior. She will try anything to feel better, or feeling numb, may hurt herself to feel something. It only gets worse.

Arousal hormones such as adrenaline tear at healthy cells and the immune system derails. Many women at The Well get sick at least monthly. One of our dear, long-term addicted women passed away just last week from infectious disease.

There are answers, and a growing understanding of trauma-based disorders has been incredibly helpful at The Well. It fits very well with the Good News of grace, making Scripture wonderfully alive. However, in a real sense, we are only just getting started.


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