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Changing the Trauma-Trained Brain - Part 1

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Why Do I Always Feel So Much Anxiety?

Chronic anxiety is a residual effect of trauma.

Consistently feeling as if you must stay on guard or that there is something to worry about and remain prepared for, is a trained response from your body and your brain that developed as a way to protect you during traumatic events or a traumatic life. It served a purpose: survival.

Unfortunately, the experience of trauma leaves an imprint on your brain (as well as your body, but we’ll get to that later), and those imprints usually contain messages that you are not safe, and in fact, powerless to stop what’s coming. This then becomes a broader manifestation of fear and anxiety.

The response to these messages continues to play out in important areas of your life. So, when your partner dismisses how you are feeling, you feel powerless and weak. Your whole self is activated to respond with rage and a fight or silence and distance. When a friend doesn’t return your call, you feel rejected and you either want to angry-text them, or pretend you didn’t notice and don’t care.

Trauma makes you feel trapped in endless painful situations, and your brain endorses that feeling.

How Do I Change This?

First, let’s understand why the trauma-trained brain is getting in your way.

There is a part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala creates reality based on what you have learned from the trauma you have experienced. This means that there is a part of your brain that keeps you stuck in the past. Because of this, it feels like the fear and anxiety is never ending and that the same things keep happening over and over again.

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An event today that triggers the memories of unsafety leads to the activation of the trauma-imprint on the amygdala. Not only is the amygdala remembering what you’d like to forget, it is also preparing for it, like it’s happening again, by releasing the hormones adrenaline and cortisol.

Adrenaline creates the sensations in the body that feels like there is an impending threat: rapid heart beat, shallow breathing, sweating, and anxiety.

Cortisol is known as an alarm system. If the brain is primed for trauma responses and constantly watchful of threats, higher amounts of cortisol will be released and you will feel danger is close -even when it isn’t, along with that dreaded anxiety.

Changing Your Trauma-Trained Brain

Believe it or not, there are a number of things you can do to change your trauma-trained brain. To get out of this never ending loop, you want to extinguish all these senses of danger the amygdala detects, and rev up the prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex releases dopamine and serotonin, which has been reduced by trauma, leading to chronic anxiety.

Increasing your dopamine levels helps you to feel pleasure, motivation, and take an interest in your life.

Serotonin helps you to feel happiness, to be able to learn from the past, and to get the very important restful sleep.

So raising the levels of these feel-good hormones is your goal.

Here’s What You Can Do Now:

The following tasks may feel uncomfortable, and that’s because your brain is in a habitual state of being where its existence has gone a certain and specific way to get you certain and specific outcomes. You want to change those outcomes from fear and anxiety to safety and peaceful living.

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  • Those with trauma backgrounds, especially, tend to focus on everything that is going wrong. Flip the script! Notice what is going RIGHT. Take extra note of what IS working. And then do more of that! This changes your brain cognitions from negative to positive and can help release feel-good hormones.

  • Create a positive future story. Optimism raises the levels of dopamine in the brain to feel pleasure towards your future, but also helps you to think and plan, so it increases your executive functioning.

  • Avoid drama. Drama fires up the amygdala and disrupts prefrontal cortex functioning, making you unable to think logically and feel prepared (i.e. safe).

  • Gratitude activities like celebrating life events and small wins increase positive emotions, activating the prefrontal cortex.

  • As hard as it is for trauma survivors, well-rested sleep helps you process your memories, which helps you make more positive and helpful learning connections, increasing your emotional intelligence. (Tasks that activate the prefrontal cortex can help to get this elusive, restful sleep.)

  • Offer and receive physical contact. Give and take hugs to literally soothe and calm the brain.

  • By integrating jokes, riddles and puns into your communication you can also learn to think flexibly. It also calls on your executive functioning to learn new skills to override the old patterns of trauma.

  • Being playful disrupts painful thought patterns and the release of stress hormones.

  • Lego sets, painting, sewing! Build something, create something! If you’re creating, you’re proving to your brain that you are alive, you exist, you are a positive force in this world who has something to contribute.

  • Singing, dancing, listening to music -releases serotonin getting the brain to switch gears from fearful to safety.

  • Meditation - developing a habit can alter the brain by shrinking the amygdala, reducing the amount of anxiety you typically experience in your life.

  • Take 5 minutes a day to focus on deep breathing and training yourself to breathe deeply in distressing situations in order to quiet your brain and create a sense of calmness. The training will become a new habit your brain has learned to associate with control over anxiety.

  • The ability to think of the “best case scenario” is a prime function of the prefrontal cortex. Because reversing your thinking from negative to positive is so challenging that your brain will really have to work, and you’ll have to stop yourself from the habit of “ what could go wrong”, this will feel like a power-skill.

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  • Writing/journaling changes your brain by using processes other than those wired by trauma, to help you think through and work through problems. Sometimes writing the problem out allows you to think more clearly and rationally about it. Keeping everything contained inside makes problems feel overwhelming and confusing. You wouldn’t do a complex math problem in your head, but writing it out and working it out step-by-step helps you arrive at an understanding.

  • Therapy can change your brain by guiding you to process the traumatic memories that keep you stuck to the past. Therapies such as CBT and EMDR work to overcome the traumatic beliefs you have about yourself that keep you spinning your wheels and frustrated.

  • Self-compassion. This is a big one. And a hard one. But let’s go back to the beginning when all this anxiety was useful at one time. It was a way to keep you prepared enough so you could survive what was happening. This was the best way you knew how to take care of yourself at the time, by staying one step ahead. Self-compassion is appreciating that you’ve gotten yourself this far and you’re just doing your best to figure it all out. Your brain will feel that love and support and pay it forward.

Though it may seem ridiculous that engaging in more positive and healthy activities could do anything to actually change your brain to function in a way that benefits you, you are making exactly that happen by taking on the monumental task of rewiring your own brain!

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