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  • Sara

Why Trauma Makes Us Feel Like We Can’t Think (and Other Distressing Post-Trauma Symptoms)

When our brain is impacted by trauma, it changes the way we view the world. Instead of being able to return to a state of relaxation when an environmental threat has ceased, the new neural pathways that have developed as a result keep us stuck perpetually in fight, flight or freeze, unable to eventually regain some sense of ease. In situations where we were previously able to remain calm and continue to feel somewhat stable, we are no longer able to do so.

Trauma impacts us in a very physiological way, and it isn’t easy to directly see this, which makes it even harder to fully understand. Instead, we feel “off,” and sometimes can’t connect the dots between what’s happened and how our bodies are processing it. Trauma can also linger in the body for a long time to come, making this even more difficult. We might be carrying around aches and pains that were a result of unprocessed trauma that happened years ago!

There are a myriad of protective factors and risk factors that come into play when our brain is determining how to deal with trauma. And some of us have a higher number of risk factors prior to the traumatic event, such as previous trauma, an unstable home environment, financial insecurity, culture and substance use, existing mental health conditions, etc., that make us more susceptible to its effects. When these markers are already present, the new trauma can hit us that much harder. It tends to have a more significant impact across many different areas of life as well as infiltrating the body, bringing on both physical and mental changes.

Despite having these risk factors that can make present trauma less bearable, if we also have adequate protective factors in our lives, such as the healthy relationships with friends, family members and significant others, self-care strategies that help us naturally reduce symptoms, access to medical care when we need it and financial stability, the good can help offset the bad. Even when this isn’t the first go-round, previous trauma may have allowed us to put additional protective factors into place that we can turn to the moment we realize that we’ve endured trauma once again.

Because trauma has a profound effect on cognition, in the posttraumatic state, it can be difficult to process thoughts and feelings in the same way we did before. In fact, depending on the circumstances and our individual response to them, it can be hard to think rationally at all and keep our thoughts straight. This is because we’re stuck in a heightened physiological state and the brain wants to focus solely on tackling the ordeal or running away. It is hard to think outside of this box that trauma has trapped us in.

When we are put under immense stress, the fight, flight or freeze response impacts the part of the brain called the amygdala. When engaging in executive functioning, the brain sources the part of the cerebellum known as the front lobe in order to make sound decisions and complete our day-to-day responsibilities. As soon as our nervous system is thrown out of whack, though, we struggle to find ways to use that frontal lobe and instead attempt to process using the amygdala. When this happens, there is a flood of adrenaline and cortisol that rushes throughout our bodies. Cortisol and adrenaline are great for the immediate stress response. However, continuous flows of high levels of the two can be detrimental to our health and well-being. Cortisol, for example, raises blood sugar by releasing stored glucose. Having chronically high cortisol levels can lead to continually high blood sugar, which over time, can lead to weight gain and can cause Type 2 diabetes.

A constant flood of cortisol and adrenaline tends to happen when someone doesn’t feel safe. If we do not work through our trauma, we most likely will continue to feel unsafe. As a result, we have a difficult time getting back to stable frontal lobe thinking which can cause chronic conditions. Essentially, our amygdala is where we store memories of past dangers, and we need to do the work to help it heal.

If you are noticing any of the symptoms of trauma, it is best to work alongside a mental health professional who can process your experience and share ways in which you can reduce the effects of fight, flight or freeze and return to a healthy baseline again. To best prepare for your appointment, have this information handy:

What is the traumatic event that occurred?

When did this occur?

What physiological symptoms are you experiencing?

What mental health symptoms are you experiencing as a result of the event?

What have you done at home already for self-care?

What are your goals for therapy?

Writing down your responses to these questions or simply taking mental notes can be very helpful, ensuring your therapist knows exactly what you’re hoping to get out of your time together.

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