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Getting stuck in the weeds (Part 1)

By Allison Lane, LCSW

As a trained EMDR therapist, I often ask myself how I can effectively treat clients who have experienced trauma. This question is a valuable one in light of the number of individuals I see on a daily basis who have faced trauma. And, yet, I am guilty of expecting too much from them. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that clients may not have the resources, biologically, to access the parts of the brain that afford them the opportunity to reflect on their experiences or reframe particularly cruel, self-defeating thoughts.

According to the National Center for PTSD, child protective services receives approximately 3 million reports of child maltreatment involving 5.5 million children annually. 30% of those cases, or 1.65 million children, are substantiated as abused or neglected. Of those cases, 65% involve neglect, 18% involve physical abuse, 10% involve sexual abuse, and 7% involve emotional abuse.

In the midst of traumatic experiences, the frontal lobe of the brain, which promotes reflection, planning and problem-solving shuts down, as does the hippocampus, which facilitates recall. The brain and body go into survival mode via our most basic survival component of the brain, the brain stem, along with the amygdala, the brain’s internal alarm system, in order to prepare quickly to fight, flee, or freeze. These unconscious components of the mind rise to the challenge to facilitate survival and react out of raw emotion. Fortunately, the brain has the beautiful capacity to call on these critical parts to protect us when we are in danger. According to neuroscientist, Bessel Vanderkolk, they contain the imprints of trauma.

This can be particularly difficult for children whose brains are developing. The role of a young child’s brain is to process their world through the limbic system and develop an internal map of their experiences. A child who endures abuse or neglect may have a brain that has become hard-wired to perceive threat when it is not present. In addition, young children are egocentric and may learn to identify with the message that they are not safe or worthy of protection. The voices of the adults in their world become messages that exist in the map of their developing brains. These internal voices persist on into adulthood and are bound to the lower parts of the brain associated with survival and the biological need for connection.

The same biological protective factors, essential in managing trauma, impact an individual’s ability to function well in daily life because memories of traumatic experiences split and are stored separately and trapped in the deeper parts of their brain. Those who have experienced trauma may become stuck in the feelings associated with their traumatic experiences with little explanation and an incomplete story of the traumas that have affected them. In other words, they may be unable to talk about what happened to them.

How do therapists access the parts of the brain most impacted by trauma when clients are unable to provide a map to retrieve those experiences that profoundly impact their view of self and the world?

In the next section of this article we will look at how this is addressed in therapy to help people heal.

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