How to Rewire Your Brain After Trauma

Whether caused by a single event, or repeated experiences, the effects of trauma stay with us. We might not know they’re there until our body tells us, or we might experience the impact soon after. 

Trauma is what happens when our nervous system does not have the capacity to process the event at the time it happened, and so it becomes stuck in the body and stored in our nervous system, even affecting us down to a cellular level. It is the deeply felt sense of the experience that either during or after, we were unable to fully process.

Trauma Release in Animals vs Humans

When an animal encounters a trauma, say a prey animal being attacked by a predator, their nervous system goes into a natural cycle – they flee and then if they are successful in this, they physically shake for a while and the trauma leaves their system. We humans, however, are much more complex – our emotional processing, our societal structures, relationship dynamics, modern day living and more, all create potential for small and big traumas that we are not developmentally programmed to deal with on such a regular basis.

Wild horses - animals discharge trauma naturally.
Wild animals have a much more uninhibited response to trauma when their nervous system’s react.

Fight – Flight – Freeze – Fawn – Flop

The trauma we experience can overwhelm our nervous system, putting us into a chronic fight, flight, freeze, fawn or even flop response, which rather than being expressed and discharging the nervous system, gets stuck in a chronic stress loop. When trauma gets stuck in our body, our body becomes flooded with stress hormones which can rewire our neural pathways and seriously impact important regions of our brain including the amygdala, the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex.

Our brain and body goes into survival mode – we become chronically stressed and dysregulated, and in a lot of cases, chronically ill.

5StressResponses
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You might have heard about “big T Trauma” versus “little T trauma”. Some like to differentiate between the two, stating that “big T” Traumas are those major incidents such as war, famine, accidents, injury, abuse, torture, death of a caregiver in childhood, etc. Anything that you can imagine that would cause a significant rupture in your life. “Small t” traumas on the other hand can be things like growing up with parents who argue a lot, or being picked on at school, the death of a pet, losing a job, being bullied in the workplace. 

In reality, trauma cannot truly be labelled as big or small, because it’s all about the individual and how it lands for them in their nervous system. You could grow up in a family where you are loved and supported, made to feel extremely safe, and yet experience one “big T” trauma that you are able to integrate and process, because of the connection and co-regulation from your caregivers you received.

ParentsFighting
Big T or Small T? Trauma is just trauma.

On the other hand, you could experience a series of so called “small t” traumas, but be a highly sensitive and isolated individual, and go on to develop undiagnosed chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (cPTSD). This person might just end up thinking they struggle with anxiety because of their sensitivity, when in truth they have a condition creating brain and nervous system disruption, but they simply don’t think they’ve been through anything significantly traumatic to have caused that. 

So it’s important to not rule out trauma from impacting your life, or your health. You don’t have to have been trapped in a burning building or beat up or shot to have been traumatised. It can depend very much on our upbringing and layers of developmental trauma that only make themselves known later in life. Much like a dripping tap, trauma can saturate you over time. 

A helpful study to reference when it comes to this is the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) study, which is a significant research study that examines the current health status of adults in relation to their childhood experiences, from decades earlier. A notable finding from the ACE study revealed that adverse childhood experiences are far more prevalent than they are recognized or acknowledged. Equally important, the study observed a strong correlation between these experiences and detrimental effects on adult health half a century later.

If all of this is sounding a bit gloomy, here’s the silver lining: just as the brain can be detrimentally rewired through trauma, we can rewire our brains to recover from trauma. We can take charge and positively shape and influence our brains towards healing, safety and resilience.

Is There an Order to Healing Trauma?

If you recognize trauma as being a significant contributing factor to your health and wellbeing currently, it might be tempting to jump straight into trauma work. It makes sense – if the trauma contributed to you becoming ill in the first place, surely dealing with it first will be the solution?

Well actually, what we have found from working now with thousands of people with trauma in Primal Trust™, is that without laying the groundwork with nervous system regulation (which can include brain retraining practices) and other self-regulation work, trauma work on its own may lead to you re-traumatising yourself and making matters worse. Why? Because you haven’t developed something called nervous system capacity. You could be burnt out, on edge, and highly reactive… this is not the time for peeling away the layers of stress and unpacking your trauma suitcase. 

StackingToolsinPrimalTrust
How we approach trauma healing in the Primal Trust™ Academy & Community

Trauma healing is a journey, and when we come to a place of acceptance that it will be a process and not a direct A-to-B transition, this is often when we start to feel progress in our healing.

With nervous system regulation work coming before trauma healing, the goal is to be able to access more neutral states and places of balance, so we can then address trauma more directly. If we are not equipped with the tools of self-regulation – i.e. how to recognize or move out of a sudden sympathetic stress response spike (think heightened anxiety, heart pounding, restlessness), or even a dorsal state of collapse (you become deeply shut down and unresponsive, numb, or experience derealisation), then work that directly addresses trauma is risky. We have the potential to flood our body with memories and generate stress chemicals that we are not yet able to navigate safely.

How to Release Trauma Safely?

So how do we move the trauma through the body in a safe way? How do we get it unstuck? We do it gently, we do it with self-compassion, and we do it with the right tools in the right order.

Before we begin to look at addressing trauma, we must first learn how to establish safety within our nervous systems, and a more loving and trusting relationship with our body. For some, this might not feel like an easy task, particularly if we feel guilt, shame or disgust related to ourselves, or that our body has betrayed us through what we have experienced with chronic illness and trauma symptoms. 

Yet it is one of the most rewarding and life-expanding practices we can learn to work with.

Our brains are incredible, our brains are plastic – they are capable of and undergo near constant change as we wire new neural pathways and reinforce old ones every single day, whether we’re aware of it or not. Our brains are made of neurons and they communicate with each other through synapses. These synapses strengthen or weaken based on the things we do – for example practising the piano makes the neural pathways involved in that stronger, so it becomes easier to play the piano. 

Retrain the brain and regulate the nervous system to restore holistic health balance.
Rewiring our brains helps us to move away from trauma states.

But neuroscientists have discovered that you don’t actually have to physically do something to wire new connections in your brain: you just have to make your brain think you’re doing it.

Your brain can’t tell the difference! And this is where visualization comes in. This is a brain workout. When we visualize and fully embody the experience of what we are imagining, we can produce the same neurochemistry as if we are actually experiencing that event. This can be deeply healing, if we learn to rehearse and embody feelings of love, appreciation, connection and gratitude. All of these feelings generate positive neurochemistry, which has a downstream effect on our whole biology. 

Brain retraining, or coming at things from a mind-based approach such as talk therapy, is what is known as the top-down method of trauma healing.

Bottom-Up Approaches for Trauma Healing

There is another way of approaching trauma healing which is bottom-up – this often refers to somatic practices, reconnecting with our bodies and learning to safely inhabit them. Even though this is working more with the body than with the mind, these practices can also have a significant impact on rewiring our brain. Our brain and body are in constant communication with each other so these practices tend to work best when used in tandem. 

There are some simple somatic practices that can greatly complement brain-retraining, and help work to release trauma physically stored in the body.

Gentle bi-lateral movements help stimulate the rhythmic movement we get when walking, which is a very natural movement, and is very soothing to the nervous system. We recently shared a somatic exercise from our Primal Trust™ team member, Louise, which helps release anxiety or anger but can be used for this as well:

https://www.instagram.com/p/C6ynry6M-D4/

Legs-Up-The-Wall pose is a restorative yoga pose that has a variety of benefits including improved lymphatic circulation, relief from tired legs, and also stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. You can also try mindful walking, gentle shaking and breathwork as these are all somatic practices which can help release stored trauma over time.

LegsUpWallYoga
Legs up the wall yoga pose. TRE (or Trauma Release Exercises) are also great. We teach this as part of our Level 1 Regulate™ program, more details here: www.primaltrust.org/membership

As previously mentioned, these somatic practices are sometimes referred to as ‘bottom-up’ practices as we use our bodies to see benefits work upstream to our brain. By releasing trauma from the body, and soothing our nervous system, we are freeing up space in our brain which has obvious benefits for brain retraining. 

What Happens Next?

What happens once we begin to move trauma out of our bodies, and we begin to rewire our brain?

This is where Post Traumatic Growth can come in. This is a known phenomenon that is researched in the world of trauma healing and refers to the positive change that can happen after a traumatic experience. You don’t ‘ignore’ or ‘cure’ the trauma, but instead find ways to develop a greater appreciation for life, a new sense of purpose, or self-transformation. This is why we use practices to release trauma from the body, to allow our brains to rewire, so that we can move forward in a positive way.

This isn’t a linear journey. It’s important that you are consistent in your practice over a sustained period as this is vitally important for significant results – and they can be life changing. Post Traumatic Growth is a testament to our incredible ability to grow, to find meaning, and to discover an inner strength that even the harshest trauma can’t extinguish.

“The wound is the place where the light enters you.”

Rumi

To learn more about trauma release and how to integrate this safely as part of a holistic program of somatic nervous system regulation, join us in the Primal Trust™ Academy & Community.

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