The seductively deceptive theatre that is called Facebook will show that I have lived a life full of joy, adventure, love and happy-family-moments in my 50 years circling the sun – Facebook is my virtual witness.

On the darker stage of my planetary drama, I have encountered many of the other, more somber characters - Bereavement; divorce; suicide, psychiatric illness; financial ruin; betrayal; physical disability, loneliness; brain damage; sexual diversity, failure, physical trauma, addiction.
More importantly, as a survivor, neuroscience expert, trauma counselor and coach, I feel I have the t-shirt, badge and even, perhaps the movie rights to talk about tragedy.

 I find it useful to speak to both counselors and survivors from a brain perspective. The usefulness of this approach lies in the fact that as survivor, we often feel bewildered and confused, even guilty, by the thoughts and the emotions that we experience through trauma and grief. Understanding the cerebral (brain) processes normalizes and explains these confusing responses during and following, a traumatic encounter.  As a helping professional, we too are not immune to the experiences and emotions we are witness to. In fact, sometimes we experience them as our own.

Explaining the fright/grief/ trauma/stress response:

Think about what happens to you when you get a fright? What happens in your body?
Perhaps you have been hijacked, mugged? Perhaps a car accident? Even worse – you may have lived with violence, alcoholism, sexual abuse. Perhaps you still do?
You can even think of a small fright like your brother jumping out the cupboard, or a time you almost stepped off the pavement in front of a car. Reflect for moment of the physical sensations that you experience in your body?

When you are in danger, or even perceive you are, you experience a cascade of physiological responses that are designed to keep you alive:
Your heart beats faster; your breathing becomes shallow and rapid. You feel a little weak at the knees and your focus becomes extremely limited – focusing on the perceived danger. The heart, the breathing, the shivery feeling – they are all designed to take the blood and oxygen and strength to where we need them – to our muscles. You my have heard of mothers that lift cars off their babies? I have seen a criminal running from a crime scene and leaping a 6-foot wall effortlessly. That is how powerful we become. This happens so that we can jump out of the way of the car or fight off the sabre-tooth-tiger. This is called the “Fight, Flight or Freeze” response. In any dangerous situation we do one of three things – we Fight back, we Freeze (become immobilized, or try to be invisible to the danger) or we Flight – we run away.

What is the one thing we do not do?2

We don’t THINK. When the sabre-tooth tiger jumps out of the bush to attack, I don’t stand there and contemplate: ”Ok, so here’s a sabre-tooth tiger ……. What should I do?”  
I would be tiger-lunch! Instead I immediately reach for my dagger - fight, or I run as fast as I can and jump up the nearest thorn tree – flight; or I stand utterly still (freeze) and hope that the lion sees the other guy down the road rather than me.

So how does this work?
Our brains are constantly looking out for us, looking out for anything that is a threat. We are super-vigilant to anything that could go wrong in our environment and much more strongly oriented towards negative than positive. If I don’t get the lovely juicy berries today, I will not die; but I wont be there to enjoy the juicy berries if I am sabre-tooth tiger lunch.
Our brains subconsciously scan the world 5 times every second for anything that could be a threat. This happens below the level of awareness. For people living in ongoing high threat circumstances, it becomes a part of their daily existence.
So far we have established that this is a fabulous thing – it is what keeps us alive.

But why is it not such a good thing?

Because this is tremendously easy to trigger. The slightest event can initiate this response. From almost missing a bus, to a challenging deadline, to a smirk on someone’s face. When it is activated, we become obsessed with it.  You have a fabulous day and one person insults you – that is all you think about for the rest of the day. This is part of the survival mechanism. It leaves us with a whole lot of feelings and reactions that belong to the instinctive not the thinking brain – and that can be confusing because WE LIKE TO THINK! Unfortunately when this instinctive brain response is triggered, our thinking is not conscious, rational, 21st century thinking. It is primal and reactive and obsessive. We can think about nothing else, but the threat (often only a perceived threat), even dreaming about it.

The Hand model of the Brain

A useful way to describe the functioning of the brain was developed by Social neuroscientist Dan Siegel.  I encourage you to watch his description of “The Hand Model of the Brain” on You Tube. He developed it to explain to children about how their brain works. I use it to teach kids and CEO’s about their brains.

Hold up your left hand, put your thumb inside your palm 3and close your four fingers over your thumb – you have a simple and evocative model for describing the basic functions of the brain. Your wrist and arm symbolize the brainstem and spinal cord. The four fingers folded over the thumb represent the Pre Frontal Cortex – also known as the executive, or thinking part of the Brain. I will talk extensively about the PFC in this description, so I will give a user-friendlier name – the Thinking Brain. Tucked inside the hand when you open up your four fingers; is the emotional/social/reactive part of your brain, which, in turn, is wrapped around the hippocampus (memory storage) and next to the amygdala – the alarm system of the brain.     

This innermost part of our brain is often called the Reptile brain.

Speaking generally, we are always operating from an open hand – four fingers raised (emotional/reactive), or a closed hand (intelligent/logical). Either the Thinking brain is in charge, or the Reptilian brain.

When we are faced with a dangerous or traumatic situation, our brain is not designed to think. It is designed to survive.

The tiny little almond shaped Amygdala hidden under the thumb is 4the part of the brain responsible for assessing the world for threat or reward. This super-vigilant emotional guard dog decides whether information should be processed in a calm thoughtful way, or should be sent immediately to the reactionary defense force to batten down the PFC hatches and prepare for limbic war.

If the latter is the case, instantaneously a message is sent to the adrenal glands to release ADRENALIN into the system. The adrenalin causes your heart to beat faster, sending blood to the muscles. You breathe rapidly and shallowly to enable the oxygen to go to your muscles. A fine layer of sweat on the surface of your skin cools your muscles. Your gut contracts - you don't want to be digesting your baked potato while you are running away from the villain. Interestingly, if you stopped to process this (which you don't), you would notice that your extremities tingle as blood is drawn to your major muscles (You don't need to be nimble and dexterous while hiding behind the tree).

As adrenalin is cascaded into our system that transmits energy to our muscles, a corresponding neurochemical, cortisol, also is released. You may recognise this word – It is the stress neurochemical. Cortisol is a neural inhibitor – it prevents the message from crossing the synapse and it also increases blood pressure, blood sugar and lowers immune system function - my energy needs to be channeled to fighting the tiger, not that pesky head cold.

In other words, the instant we perceive a threat, we “flip our lid”. Put the fingers of your hand facing upright – now your Reptile brain goes into action to make sure you survive.

After the battle
You know how weak and exhausted you feel after you have had an adrenalin hit? It’s small and goes away quickly when we are avoiding the car as we step off the pavement. But when we are faced with an intense traumatic situation like rape, or hijacking, or torture, or a long-lasting life stress – a massive amount of adrenalin is released into our bloodstream – and IT’S NOT NICE!

So it helps us survive, but it has a nasty after-effect. It makes us feel weak, we can’t sleep, we are on super-alert all the time in case of another danger. We overreact, we are weepy, our appetite is affected, we take things personally, and worst of all… we relive the trauma over and over and over, we keep trying to make sense of it.

Think about our hand model. When you are experiencing a trauma, your Thinking brain disengages (it has to, its not needed), and then you are left with the reptile brain trying to make sense of what just happened. And the Reptile brain HAS NO LOGIC.

Therapy, talking to someone, working through what happened, is about closing your hand again and re-engaging the Thinking brain. So instead of just living with prehistoric reptile thoughts and feelings and reactions, close your hand by engaging in counseling and make some sense of something that feels completely senseless.

Why are my traumatic emotional experiences burnt indelibly in my memory?

The Hippocampus (to do with your long-term memory) is tucked deep inside that thumb curled up in your palm. This is why our memories of what happened are sometimes a bit distorted. If someone else was present during the same trauma, often his or her story is different to ours. Why? It’s because we don’t have our Thinking brain engaged when we are in the situation – we don’t need it, we need our survival brain. Our memories of the trauma are not mediated through logic and thinking. Counseling helps us make sense of the situation and discover the true story of what happened to us. It helps us close our hand.

Be Mindful of healing
After we have experienced a trauma it is helpful to get rid of all that adrenalin. In the moment when we need it, it is fantastic – it keeps us alive. But it is toxic if it stays in our brains. Cortisol causes us to forget things, not sleep, get snappy at those we love, feel misunderstood, lose our appetites, get sick, feel helpless and hopeless.

The how of brain recovery.

5Exercise, good eating habits, crying (yes, that works!), breathing, prayer, meditating, rest, doing kind things for ourselves, being in nature, laughing – most of all self-care. Don't tough it out and minimize the gravity of your experience. Now is the time to do personal first-aid.
Go for counseling – understanding and sharing the experience will ultimately allow you to find meaning in a meaningless situation.

In conclusion

We have a most wonderful brain that helps us to live, even when we think we may not want to. We need to work with our brain to help us live the best way possible. Reptile is all very well when we need it, but not all the time. I love my PFC, my thinking brain, because it helps me to live and dream and hope and set goals. Facebook theatre sometimes does truly mirror real-world joy. The hard stuff happens that I don't always share on a social stage, but that's ok. It’s where I learn and become resilient and perhaps grow wisdom. Most of all, I need to understand and help my brain work in the best way it can.

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