Writer: Jessica Volger, MS, MAC, PLPC
The human brain is so very complex. One tiny change can make a tremendous difference, much like a computer. For example, when I lived in Ireland, I worked for a company that utilized a rather complex software program to manage revenue from various business sectors. In this system, it was important to right click and select paste rather than use “ctrl V”. After years of training my brain to use “ctrl V” it seemed near impossible to remember to right click and select paste.
I was a serious nightmare for our IT department in the UK. When a user used “ctrl V” they would lose an important function in the program which could only be restored by calling over to the team in the UK. No. This is not a story about being the annoying employee who called for help all the time, though I am sure that was also the case. Whenever I used “ctrl V”, I was corrupting the database’s data. Where? That’s a good question! We did not know exactly where. Reports would be generated, and the numbers would be wrong. The client would ask why numbers did not match. Other reporting problems would crop up. My little mistake created big problems due to the ripple effect of one little command.
That can also be true for our brains when a traumatic event happens, especially if there is a series of small traumatic events. The effects of less intense traumatic experiences may add up much like my continued use of “ctrl V”. Despite the size of the traumatic experience or its frequency, the ripple effect in our brains is unknown. Studies have shown that our resiliency to traumatic experiences is unpredictable, and I assume this may be attributed to the complex functioning of our brains. Nonetheless, trauma has an effect even if it cannot be predicted.
Another point my database example illustrates is how our brains often wire themselves to a specific behavior pattern that can be difficult to change without intentional effort. I often refer to this as “the cattle path” quality of the well-known neuroscience phrase “fire together, wire together”. Much like a cattle path groove that becomes deep and well defined, my brain had strongly mapped the behavior to use “ctrl V”. The behavior was second nature. Before I even thought about what I was doing I was using the function, almost like watching myself select the wrong answer. The embarrassment of calling over to the UK became quite shaming. I had to work hard to change my automatic response to transferring data.
This is how our brain is on trauma! With repeated trauma, like childhood abuse, our brain maps a strong response to these incidences. The response can be over the excitement of our amygdala (panic center of the brain: fight, flight, or freeze) or under activation of our amygdala that prevents us from keeping ourselves safe. These maladaptive paths become so strong it is like the deep cattle paths where grass becomes so trampled all you can see now is a groove of dirt. Cows will not make a new path without the right incentive, bringing their awareness to fresh grass to eat. Our brains are the same way when healing from trauma.
Telling someone to stop doing whatever automatic response their brain engages in is not helpful. It does not change the mapping of the brain, and in some cases strengthens the maladaptive mapping. One of the first things I do with clients who have a significant trauma history is to train, or re-train, their brains what it is like to be relaxed and feel safe. It is excessively repetitive for a reason. During the process, client’s may not feel a change. After several months they notice their thinking is different or their response time to triggers in their life has lengthened so they have more time to decide on a different response. Sometimes, a few months pass and a client is able to have an “a-ha!” moment they would not be able to experience during their first session. Fight, flight, or freeze responses would have been too intense to hear or experience an alternate perspective. After the amygdala has been trained to be calmer, healing work can begin. The therapeutic work becomes more efficient after a healthy foundation has been established. New wiring. Productive wiring.
Do you need new wiring? Do you know someone who could benefit from new wiring? If you live in the St. Louis Metropolitan area, I would love to help, even if that means helping you find another therapist to walk your journey with you.