For those of us who have lived through a series of traumatic experiences, particularly in childhood, memories relating to them are stored in a different way to the ‘normal’ memories we have as adults about what happened yesterday or last week etc. Most ‘ordinary’ memories have a story attached to them so we can say something like ‘last week this happened and then this and this and I felt…’ We talk about the memory and although we may connect with the feelings to do with something which happened in the past, we are still aware that we are not in the same time or place that the memory is. We can think about the memory but not, necessarily, relive the memory. This is because our brain has a way of sorting and processing ‘normal’ memory. The hippocampus is rather like the librarian in the brain. It processes information which comes to it, decides how much of a threat if any it is and files it somewhere. The problem with traumatic memory is that there is too much ‘red flag’ information coming to the hippocampus at any given time and it effectively goes offline so rather than processing the information and tagging it with language, the information simply goes straight to the amygdala (the primitive part of the brain designed not to reason but to keep you alive) where there are limited choices of how to respond – fight, flight, freeze, submit.
With complex trauma, where there is a series of or many traumatic events which take place over the course of time, this becomes a routine response of the hippocampus and often little memory is stored with language attached to it. Eventually, the hippocampus becomes hypersensitive to threat and will detect it even when it’s not there so we end up reacting in a way which is disproportionate to the current situation. The reaction was perfectly reasonable and appropriate for the original trauma but somehow, parts of our brain have got stuck there and don’t realise that the original threat is passed.
What does this look like in real life? Well, it can look like someone flying into a fit of rage because someone speaks to them the ‘wrong way’. It can feel like an overwhelming need to get out of a place or a conversation which on reflection you wonder why on earth you did that. It can be suddenly finding yourself unable to speak or move or not wanting to leave the house. It can be that you notice patterns of behaviour where you realise that there are some people you just can’t say no to. Of course, all of these behaviours can occur without being linked to complex trauma but in folks who are dealing with this issue, they are hugely difficult things to deal with and can sometimes make you feel like you are not in control of your own life – like something takes over and your ability to be a rational adult disappears.
If this is familiar to you then a really good start to changing how you react to what your brain is perceiving as a threatening situation is to simply notice how you’re thinking and feeling. Noticing and being mindfully aware of the thoughts and feelings that are there will help to interrupt that all out amygdala response.