Keeping on with the theme of my last post and the brain’s one job, I wanted to talk a little about how the brain does its job, and why sometimes it feels like maybe it isn’t doing its job.
As I explained in the previous post, about the break down of the prefrontal cortex, the limbic system (amygdala and hippocampus), and then the brain stem.
The survival of us, and our species, as well as every other species on this planet, including animals, plants, and even bacteria, is pretty much the one job the brain has – “keep us alive”. And the brain’s relentless efforts are nothing to sneeze at because as destructive as some of the coping methods can be, the brain has in fact done its job, and gotten us to the next moment. It has kept us alive.
So why does the brain do this? Why doesn’t the brain search for healthier, more productive ways to survive and cope? Why does the brain take the road travelled down to the dirt, carving a crevice of bad habits into our lives?
Well, that comes down more to our environment than our brain. And by environment, I mean our caregivers. It is the job of our caregivers to teach us what they know. And by “they” I mean their brains. If what our caregiver’s brain knows is addiction, avoidance, suppression and destruction, then sadly, that is what our brains will be taught.
Unfortunately, if the caregiver brain doesn’t know how to cope or process, and then they pass that down to our brains, that can mean that right off the bat we’re gonna have some issues. And our poor brains will have a hard time.
Now the good news is, that since our brains learned the improper, incorrect, and destructive ways to cope initially. We can re-learn how to do right. We can teach our brains better, healthier, less life-destroying ways to cope and process.
It is by no means an easy process, but it can be done.
Trauma, whether it is event-specific, like a car accident or a physical assault, or chronic, like neglect or abuse, the one thing that all traumas share is their profound ability to be life-changing. Changing our behaviours, our thoughts, our beliefs, and our bodies.
And like I said, it starts with our brains.
Every time we are triggered or activated, whether it is from something real or perceived, our brains are going to what it knows, and what worked before and is applying it, over and over and over again.
Until, like a river carved into a canyon, it has been so reinforced for our brains to keep doing what we’re doing, it also now is going to be a challenge to carve a new river. A new, healthier river. A river that doesn’t leave us battered and bruised and broken as we finally come out of it.
So how does this reinforcement work? Well, it’s simple and complicated and a lightning fast process that the brain does all day, every day, without exception. Before we know it, and very much without “our” help, our brain has searched for the same or similar experiences, and when it finds a piece that feels the same, it then responds the same as it did the first time.
Because the prefrontal cortex comes offline when we get triggered or activated, we aren’t able to tell our brain that this isn’t the exact same situation. That the threat is not actually there. And that we don’t need to respond the exact same way.
This is especially evident when it comes to trauma response. When something – a smell, a look, a person, a place, a posture, a memory – triggers us, and sets are vagus activation to go, our brain assumes that we are under the same threat as before, and need to respond accordingly.
Even if the memory or trigger comes for our bodies, where trauma can be stored, our brain will still take the activation as before. This is very helpful when we actually are under threat. But when we aren’t, the effects can be devastating, physically, emotionally, and mentally.
This constant activation and familiar path can literally break us.
If you are in somewhat of disbelief that this is how our brains behave, or you would like to see it in action, then I invite you to take a look at this picture.
Obviously, this is a baby animal. But what kind of animal is it? If you know what it is that’s cool. But I’m going to assume that for the sake of this example, that you don’t.
So right now, your brain is going through its vast database of knowledge and experience for what you know about baby animals. Your brain is assessing the legs and ears, and face of the animal, trying to find any defining features or marks that can help categorize and identify what kind of animal you are looking at.
Before you are even aware of what your brain is doing to identify this animal, it has already eliminated what it isn’t. As the baby animal has no wings, then it’s not a bird. And your brain made that decision almost right away.
So now it’s going through its files, and looking at whatever features of the animal that may help to identify what it is. So you might then look at the ears, and seeing the ears are more short and rounded than pointed and long, you might deduce that it’s not a rabbit.
You notice it has a tail, but there are many animals that have a tail – puppies, kittens, raccoons, hamsters, all have tails. So your brain takes some guesses, is it a puppy? Your brain goes through the files of your mind and tries to find a memory of a newborn puppy, and it compares, is this what a newborn puppy looks like? Maybe. Depends on the breed of dog it is. So puppy then makes the list of animals it might be.
Is it a newborn kitten? You notice teeny little claws, and whiskers, and so your brain compares its files of newborn kittens to what you are seeing. And it kind of matches there too. So it could be a kitten? Now kitten makes the list of animals it might be.
But other animals have claws and whiskers too. Is it possible it could be a raccoon? Or a skunk? Or a possum? But your brain doesn’t have files of a newborn raccoon or a newborn possum, so while it’s possible that it could be one of those, you can’t tell for sure. So until they can be eliminated, raccoons, and skunks, and possums also make the list of animals it could be.
So we know it’s not a bird, and most likely not a rabbit. Your brain guesses a puppy, or a kitten, or a raccoon, or a possum, or maybe even a hamster because you know hamsters have rounded ears, and they can have a tail too. But you’ve never seen a newborn hamster, so you don’t know for certain if this is a newborn hamster or not. Since you can’t eliminate it, you add it to the list of animals it could be.
Based on what you see and your personal knowledge and experience your brain does its best to make a guess.
Now, what if I were to tell you, it is none of those animals. You were right to deduce that it was not a bird or a rabbit. It also not a puppy. Nor is it a kitten. It isn’t a raccoon. Or a possum. Nor is it a hamster or a gerbil.
Now, your brain is starting to send off some warning flares, not a grave danger, “there-is-an-imminent-threat-coming” type of flare because obviously, this picture is not a threat, so your autonomic system will most likely not be activated, but still sending off “what-are-we-dealing-with” type of flares.
Your brain is going into a mini panic right now, trying to figure out what kind of animal this is because the brain likes certainty. It likes to know what it is looking at, and what it is dealing with. Even when it is just looking at a picture of a newborn animal.
The brain likes to be able to go through its many files, find a similar or identical file, and assign the animal to a category or type, so it can decide what you should do next.
And this, my friends, is what the brain is doing (or trying to do) when it comes to trauma response. It is looking for resolve, solution, process, and integration. It is looking to finally move the trauma and everything that comes with it, the story, the images, into its vast, vast archive.
Everything we do, everything we see, everything we smell, everything we touch, and everything we taste, every place we go, every person we meet, every object we encounter, every single experience of our day, this is all that the brain is doing.
It is encountering the outer world and pulling files that match so we are prepared for the experience, and the brain is confident we can handle the experience.
For the most part our days tend to be fairly similar, the routes we take to shopping or work or friends homes, are usually pretty uneventful. The people we encounter in our neighbourhood or at the grocery store might be familiar so again the brain has pulled all its files and can be confident that this excursion to the grocery store should be good. This neighbour is okay.
It is a lightning fast process that allows us to go about our day with minimal issue.
Now if the brain can’t find the same experience as before, then it will go to the next step of pooling resources, by searching all of our similar files and trying to make them work to this “new” situation or experience. What do I have that is similar to this that can work?
And if that doesn’t work then the brain starts to panic a little.
Because now we are coming up on a whole new experience that we don’t have files for, so we don’t know how to handle things, or what to expect. So the brain starts to look outward, in the environment, for what may help. Trying to find something that can help. What can we learn on the fly for how to cope?
Except if there’s nothing that can help, our brain goes to the next step and that’s finding someone who can help. Because now we’ve exhausted all of our files and resources and we got nothing. It’s why we start to search for others when we are lost. Or we ask for others opinion when we can’t determine what something is.
Even with the picture of the baby animal, if your brain doesn’t have the experience on file, it will then turn to its environment and other people for help. You might even show the picture to someone else and ask if they know what it is. That’s how the brain works.
When you have had developmental/childhood trauma then your brain is just not equipped to process or problem-solve a situation, a neglected or abused brain hasn’t got the knowledge or the tools yet that come with learning and growing up that allow you to call on your resources and help you get through a situation.
You can’t tap into resources that are not there. And when it comes to trauma, turning to your environment and others for help can be dangerous at worst and useless at best, because the resources that are supposed to help you as you grow and develop are not there. And those around you may not even know themselves.
And so your brain becomes this fragmented place where you don’t have the proper resources to take care of yourself or are able to call on external sources to help you.
Whatever your triggers are, they have now been activated and assigned by the brain as a threat and a repeat of trauma.
And depending on what kind of trauma you are dealing with, there could be any number of triggers that your brain will go to its trauma file and before you are even aware it has triggered the trauma-response in your mind and your body.
Your autonomic system has been activated, your thoughts have zeroed in on the trauma narrative, and your body and brain have now been hijacked into the fight, flight, freeze, and finally, collapse response.
As much as these responses can be painful and paralyzing, they are what the brain knows to this point. The brain can only work with what it knows. And when all resources, internally and externally, have been exhausted, the brain gets stuck, and often, just shuts down.
That is trauma in action. That is the brain surviving and coping.
Going to what it knows, going to what is familiar, and what will move us into the next moment. What will move the story forward without killing us?
Granted, a picture of a baby animal is not life-threatening or dangerous, but what is worth noting here is how the brain responds and reacts. The pathways are essentially the same as the brain searches for familiarity and knowing the end result. Whether it’s a picture or an actual threat.
It is an exhaustive process that has been honed over millennia.
Despite how difficult it might seem to get a new healthier river to carve a newer, healthier valley, it can be done. And maybe knowing that so much of the trauma-response, the addictions, the coping, the disorders, are not your brain hurting, but actually is trying to help you, might help you to be a little kinder to yourself as you try to survive, and hopefully, try to recover.
Remember that carving a river takes time and repetition of the water flowing over the same spot before it can start to become a valley. So too will it take patience and practice to make new pathways in your brain.
That you are not in your trauma moment from before. That you can respond differently. That you can move the trauma to memory and be in this moment, instead of that one.
Be kind to yourself. Your brain is doing what it can.
For those who are still curious, or their brains are just dying to know, the picture is of a newborn squirrel.