The Brain on Trauma

The Brain

Left and Right side

Did you know that the left part of the brain develops when children are learning speech and language? This enables them to name and compare things, to understand relationships and eventually how they relate to others around them. The right side of the brain however, is in charge of controlling attention, memory, reasoning and problem solving.

Did you also know that both sides of the brain process memory differently? The left side remembers facts, stats, vocabulary of events, explains our experiences and puts them in order, while the right side stores memories of sound, touch, smell and the emotions they evoke. It reacts automatically to voices, facial features, gestures, and places experienced in the past. The right side is also connected to the old part of the brain and is the side that stays online during traumatic experiences.

Both sides of the brain work well together, although there can be serious challenges when one side is disabled or shuts down temporarily, which is often what happens when someone is experiencing extremely stressful situations. When the left side (logical mind) of the brain is deactivated during trauma, it impacts on our ability to organise experiences into logical sequences, and translate feelings and perceptions into words.

People who have experienced any form of trauma often lack the words to explain what’s happened to them. Years might have passed by, but there are still no words to explain what happened in any detail.

Victims of sexual assault for example, might not remember specific facts about what happened, but can recognise smells and other sensory stimulants that were present during the event. This is partly due to the part of the brain that is in charge of filing memories in a coherent, logical manner (left brain) is inactive during danger. This is why victims of trauma can often struggle to talk about what has happened because a lot of the time there are very limited factual memories stored in their brain. The more instinctive memories such as the smell of an attacker can be more present in their mind rather than for instance the memory of an attacker’s face.

When it's a matter of survival, the primitive part of the brain, which deals with sense, emotions and survival, overrides the logical part of the brain (NHS, 2015). This becomes particularly challenging when a survivor is prompted to explain an event in detail and has no clear memories of the sequence of events. This might lead to confusion on the survivor’s part because they may have very limited memory stored around what happened. They might understand that something horrible happened but not have any idea about the time or the place of the event.

Indicators of Trauma

Some indicators of trauma can be: depression, crying a lot, numbness, flashbacks, stress, shame/guilt, social isolation, inability to enjoy what used to bring pleasure, among other things. When survivors feel overwhelmed by the symptoms of trauma, this can later lead to dissociation, traumatic bonding, and jumbled memory. They have essentially lost the person they were before the traumatic event (NHS, 2015).

Sometimes, victims find ways to relieve the aftermath of the terror experienced by perhaps self-harming, engaging in risky behaviour, developing suicidal ideation, and other destructive behaviour. From the outside it looks like the person doesn’t care about their life anymore, but from the inside, the behaviour is a cry for help. Even though the traumatic event might have realistically ended, from their perspective it’s as real as the moment it happened.

Sometimes, in the media, we hear about how victims of sexual abuse come forward years after the actual event took place, and the response tend to be- why, why now? The question of "why now?" is often declared with an underlining skepticism and judgement. People think that if someone has been assaulted, the first thing they would do is run to the Police and tell them everything so justice can be served. There are many reasons why a victim would not be able to come forward straight away, some include: not feeling safe enough to tell anyone, not having a clear memory of the event, fear of judgement and shaming from others, not being believed, or a feeling of not wanting to ruin the abuser’s life.

This is the Brain on Trauma

The way the body and the brain experience and deal with traumatic experiences are very intricate but at the same time fascinating because the instinctive part of the brain is primarily concerned with survival, the ability to fight or flight to stay alive. Although this sounds like an appropriate reaction, the brain doesn’t know when to stop being in survival mode which creates new challenges when recovering from trauma.

The Body's Alarm System

The amygdala is a key part of the limbic system: one of the roles of the amygdala is to sense danger and prepare us for survival through fight, flight, or freeze by setting off an alarm response in the body making us react as fast as possible. As mentioned before, it is common for the more primitive parts of our brain to override all the logical conscious parts of the brain such as our prefrontal cortex.

When the alarm system goes off, a number of things happen to get the body into survival mode e.g. blood and oxygen are diverted to the muscles and adrenalin floods the body. All the systems that are not crucial to survival shut down such as the neo-cortex (centre of logic, imagination, planning, and control- more sophisticated than the old part of the brain).

Normally, the role of the hippocampus in the brain is to file memories so we can retrieve them later, but when in survival mode, it stops filing memory- which makes it harder to gather evidence later. Remember, during trauma, the brain only keeps alive what’s needed for survival, memory is not one of them. Therefore, when victims are later questioned about their experiences, the memories are simply not filed yet because the brain was trying to keep the person focused on surviving the traumatic event and not on remembering the event.

The body and the brain are remarkable in how they’re hardwired to keep us alive and protected. During stressful situations, the more instinctive parts of the brain take over, such as you running away from danger without even thinking about it. The body literally takes cues from the brain and the focus is on staying alive. For example, instead of focusing on filing memories, the hippocampus switches to pumping cortisol into the bloodstream which stops you from feeling pain so you can focus on getting to safety (Van der Kolk, 2015 edition).

Often, during dangerous times, the body either nudges us to fight or flight so we sometimes forget to mention that freezing is also a natural response. Victims often blame themselves for not acting quickly enough but this is not under their control- this is a part of the old instinctive part of the brain that is trying to protect you. Unfortunately, research shows that when someone freezes during a traumatic event, it can result in the person feeling completely out of control in their lives in general because the message is that when we needed to fight or flight, we froze which may be is harder to come to terms with later.

How to assist

If someone seems vacant while you are trying to communicate with them, they’re most likely trapped in the fear of the event. See if you can ground them by helping them stay in the present:

  1. You can ask non-threatening questions such as “are you thirsty?” or “are you warm enough?”

  2. You can ask them to pinpoint what they see in the room they’re sitting in: the colours, shapes and sizes, smells etc. This will make them focus on what they see and sense and not what their thoughts are in that moment.

  3. If you are talking about the traumatic event with them, make sure you ask questions that focus more on how they are feeling/were feeling instead of actual details around it. In order to get to the facts, it’s more useful to engage their feelings first because they can speak about that more easily when they feel safe.

  4. Trauma has taught their bodies to constantly be on high alert hence relaxation techniques might be useful ahead of discussing negative experiences (focus on the breath, meditation, etc)

  5. Seeking professional help from a trauma expert: some of the treatments for trauma can include EMDR, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Somatic Experiencing *

It’s important to know that when someone is feeling overwhelmed by the abuse they’ve experienced, in order to cope with the immense feelings of shame and guilt, coping with alcohol, drugs, risky behaviour and self-harm among other behaviours are common. This is sometimes the only way people can cope with what’s going on inside of them. If someone has disclosed to you, be present with them, you don’t have to be a professional to be able to support someone. Just be there and listen. Don’t push them to tell you more or to tell other people. Just listen and be empathetic, that goes a long way.

*read below for more information


Book: Bessel Van der Kolk; The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma- Paperback, 2015 Issue

YouTube Video: NHS Lanarkshire EVA services, 2015: Trauma and the Brain: Understanding abuse survivors’ responses:


Further information on the brain:

Amygdala: part of the Limbic System- responsible for the response and memory of emotions, especially fear. When you think of the amygdala, you should think of one word. Fear. The amygdala is the reason we are afraid of things outside our control. It also controls the way we react to certain stimuli, or an event that causes an emotion, that we see as potentially threatening or dangerous.

Limbic System: the part of the brain that deals with three key functions: emotions, memories and arousal (or stimulation). This system is composed of several parts, which are found above the brainstem and within the cerebrum. The limbic system connects parts of the brain that deal with high and low functions.

Hippocampus: part of the Limbic System, in each temporal lobe- responsible for processing of long-term memory and emotional responses. Also responsible for connecting certain sensations and emotions to particular memories.

Trauma: Any distressing or life-threatening event where psychological trauma can set in. Experience of emotional issues, such as extreme anxiety, anger, sadness, survivor’s guilt, or PTSD. Ongoing problems with sleep or physical pain, trouble with their personal and professional relationships, and low self-esteem issues. Research on trauma outlines several healthy ways of coping, such as avoiding alcohol and drugs, seeing loved ones regularly, exercising, sleeping, and other methods of self-care. There are people who are able to overcome trauma, offering inspiration to others who have had life-altering negative experiences.

Somatic experiencing: focuses on bodily sensations, rather than thoughts and memories about the traumatic event. By concentrating on what’s happening in your body, you can release pent-up trauma-related energy through shaking, crying, and other forms of physical release.

Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: helps you process and evaluate your thoughts and feelings about a trauma.

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing): incorporates elements of cognitive-behavioural therapy with eye movements or other forms of rhythmic, left-right stimulation that can “unfreeze” traumatic memories.

Author: Maggie Cruz (2019) for MA Social Work, BA Sociology & Criminology Cruz Coaching-