The Brain, Trauma, and Art Therapy
During a traumatic event your brains main function is to get you through the event. In order to do this your brain sends out signals of trauma. That is, it helps us by activating biological reactions involved in the fight/flight response. During this response your brain releases adrenalin (your heart races, breathing quickens, and you are ready to move). The amygdala, which is responsible for memories in response to emotional events and emotional regulation, goes into over drive. So what does that mean? In a traumatic event there is an overload of stress hormones that may get short-circuited and may actually increase in size. Your brain is wired to calm you down and help you cope after a fear situation but that doesn’t always happen. Your medial prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for regulating emotion and fear responses, may not regulate itself or function properly after trauma. Think of it like a power surge in you house- sometimes everything goes back to normal but sometimes it flips a breaker. This short circuiting of the brain can account for always feeling frightened, nightmares, not finding words to describe the event (prefrontal lobe, which is responsible for language, is effected), problems with short term memory (the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory and experience assimilation, can actually shrink in volume), or having difficulty regulating emotions.
What does that mean for you? The good news is: you can rewire your brain. It is not always easy but it can be done. I had a neuropsychologist explain it to me like this: it’s like rolling a ball down a hill. The first time doesn’t make a visible difference but, the more times you do it, the deeper the rut. By engaging yourself in therapy, narrivate exploration, creative arts therapy, etc. you can help rewire your brain.
To quote Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, LPCC, LPAT (2010) from her website:
“As we continue to learn more about complex, chronic trauma, just how should trauma specialists address DTD and make appropriate interventions with these children and adolescents? Here are some simple recommendations, based on my work with children from violent homes, abused children, and youth who witness homicides:1. Establish a sense of safety. This includes helping children establish both an internal sense of safety and identification and support for safety within their homes, neighborhoods, and communities.2. Regulate affect. Help children understand that what has happened is “not their fault,” and assist them in learning methods to regulate and moderate arousal [limbic system] with the long-term goal of restoring emotional equilibrium.3. Reestablish attachment. Chronic, complex trauma disrupts basic trust because it is often caused by dysfunctional or abusive interpersonal relationships; our goal as helping professionals is to help children reestablish attachment with positive adult role models and to learn how to empathize and productively interact with peers.4. Enhance the brain’s executive functions. Serious and repetitive trauma impacts cognition, disrupting cortical functioning; our goal is to help children effectively engage attention, comprehension, and problem-solving skills to allow for the experiences of mastery, self-esteem, and self-efficacy.5. Reframe and integrate traumatic experiences. Chronic, complex developmental trauma cannot be erased from memory; however, with our help children can learn to how to manage their reactions, enhance adaptive coping skills, and cultivate present-oriented responses to current stresses. Our ultimate goal in intervention is to help these youth transform, incorporate, resolve, repair, and construct meaningful lives, post-treatment.”
Our bodies and brains are effected deeply by trauma. Just know that you are not alone and there are tools out there to help regulate your responses to traumatic events.