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How the Brain Interprets Familial and Intergenerational Trauma

Updated: Jun 14, 2022

Our brain is amazing, its job is to help us function on daily basis while monitoring all our surroundings to keep us safe. Our brain converts daily experiences into memories so we can prioritize experiences that make us feel good while avoiding experiences that have negative consequences. When our brain experiences a trauma, those functions go into overdrive. Once this happens our brain tends to shut down systems that are nonessential and focuses on releasing stress hormones to help us survive. After long periods of time with our brain in overdrive it can impact how the brain functions.

How does the brain store traumatic events?

When an individual experiences a traumatic event, adrenaline rushes through the body and the memory is saved in the amygdala. The amygdala’s job is to read the emotional significance of an event. With trauma memories our amygdala tends to store this information as sensory fragments. Which means that rather than being able to view the traumatic event as a complete story, its experience through our five senses at the time of the trauma. Which means after the trauma, one can easily be triggered by sensory input, and normal circumstances can be interpreted as dangerous. Sensory fragments can easily be misinterpreted, causing the brain to lose its ability to determine the difference between what is normal and what is threatening.

How does traumatic events inform our daily functioning?

When a trauma occurs it sends people into a flight, fight or freeze response, which can shut down the rational part of our brain. The brain essentially becomes disorganized and overwhelmed and the body goes into survival mode further shutting down higher reasoning and language parts of the brain. This can result in us feeling a heightened sense of anxiety, act impulsively, and struggle to manage emotions. All this overactivity can make it difficult for our brain to realize the difference between a threat that is happening now or a threat that happened in the past. Meaning that when we are reminded of a traumatic event via a sensory trigger, our brain will respond the exact same way as if it was experiencing the trauma for the first time. This causes us to feel on high alert, constantly on edge and mentally exhausted. Living with traumatic stress can change the brain so much that daily living becomes a challenge, some symptoms include:

  • Anxiety

  • Insomnia

  • Irritability

  • Flashbacks

  • Nightmares

  • Panic attacks

  • Memory issues

  • Poor concentration

  • Trouble making decisions

  • Difficulty learning new things

  • Fatigue

  • Communication problems

  • Relationship challenges

  • Depression

Is cognitive fusion limiting your ability to be you?

Cognitive fusion is the process in which we attach a thought to an experience. For example, “there’s no way I’ll be able to cope with this” rather than allowing ourselves to pair this thought with instances that prove this statement, we can reframe the thought as “I’m having the thought that there’s no way I’ll be able to cope with this”. Thoughts don’t ask our permission to occur they just happen, but it doesn’t mean that we have to be enslaved to them. Thoughts in of themselves are not facts, just because our brain has a thought doesn’t necessarily make it true. Allowing yourself to acknowledge a thought for what it is, a thought, will help you to feel less enslaved to your thoughts.

Your brain is a helicopter parent.

As frustrating as helicopter parents are, your brain is one too. It is constantly monitoring your activities to protect you and keep you safe. However, when the brain experiences a traumatic event, this monitoring becomes extreme and even little events can trigger your brain to perceive a situation as dangerous. The good news is you can teach your helicopter brain to relax. Just like with helicopter parenting, your brain can be taught, over time, how to change its reactions and interpretations. Healing from trauma is possible with proper trauma informed care and support.


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