I attend a talk at lunchtime today on “Trauma-Informed Approaches to Health Care.” It was given by a woman who heads up a county program that trains health care providers, juvenile justice professionals, teachers and school staff, and others who work with adolescents about trauma. The impact, the symptoms, the needs, the way the brain works, the way an entire system can be set up to reduce the stress on clients. That last item, less stressful school and justice and health systems, was fascinating, and I may write more about it later.
What I’ve been thinking about this evening is the part about trauma and the brain. I’ve heard and read bits and pieces about this before but never really had it all put together. The presenter talked about how our frontal lobe is not just for executive function, but also for narrative memory. When we are in the midst of trauma, however, our frontal lobe shuts down, and it’s the amygdala, with it’s fight-flight-freeze reactions that takes over. And the memories from those experiences are not stored in the frontal lobe. Instead they are stored in fragments (colors, smells, sensory experiences) in the limbic system. The body remembers in its senses and in its instinctive reactions to particular triggers. This is the vastly oversimplified version of what she explained to us.
Click! The sound of something falling in place for me. This may be why I associate pain at the opening of my vagina with a gold couch and afternoon sunshine coming in a window. Shame with a wet nightgown hidden in the closet. Partial memories and lots of questions. It is normal not to have a clear, coherent story to tell, especially about the things that happened when I was very young.
I feel so relieved to know that. This is how brains work. It is so great that brain researchers have come to figure out how different parts of the brain function, what trauma does to that functioning, and what that means for different types of memory.
I just wish I’d had this information 20 years ago, when I was continually punishing myself for making up disgusting stories that couldn’t possibly be true because I didn’t have any “real” memories, just impressions and sensations. I felt like other people’s stories were their real stories, and they deserved care and compassion. Mine, however, was just one more example of me trying to get sympathetic attention for myself. And it was especially loathsome that I did this by making up terrible things about my dad.
It wasn’t just 20 years ago, of course. I was still doing it a year ago. And off and on for the 19 years in between. Why didn’t they tell me sooner?!? The fact that science didn’t know this 20 years ago is no excuse! I mean, it is of course, but damn, I suffered more than I needed to because of that self-doubt.
I feel a little sadness about those years.I feel I wasted precious time from my life hating myself for something that was just a normal reaction to unhealthy experiences.
But more than sad, I also feel happy that I can free myself of that doubt once and for all. Also I feel happy that I finally, finally, am free of the pain from my surgery seven weeks ago. Today I took my first “longer” walk with the dogs (1.75 miles, not that long but the longest since before the surgery), and I feel good. And although I haven’t seen E for twenty-four long days, I know I will see her in just four more days, Tuesday afternoon.
It was also incredibly encouraging to hear that the way systems are working with traumatized youth is increasingly through teaching them about how their brains work, especially under stress, and then helping them develop mindfulness to manage their reactions. In fact, they’ve been teaching this to children as young as six years old (link to the see-it-and-be-impressed video here).
I’ve been working on my own mindfulness meditation (every day for 20 days straight so far, before that much more off and on). It’s exciting to hear about the research supporting the way that mindfulness works on the brain. It gives me hope, and what do we need more than that for our healing?