This week, I invited people on Facebook to ask questions about childhood trauma. Today and tomorrow, I want to take time to answer the following question:
Before answering the parental side of things (look for that tomorrow!), I feel like this would be a great time to first discuss how childhood trauma (ANY trauma!) is, at its root, a sensory issue.
To do that, I'm excited to have Marlene Ewert, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Your Journey Counseling in Newton, Kan., here with us today. I seriously cannot share enough praises about Marlene. She is absolutely wonderful at what she does, and I'm thrilled that she agreed to write a guest post for my deep to DEEP series!
Take it away, Marlene!
Have you ever walked into a building and smelled something that immediately reminded you of a different time and place? Eating a piece of apple pie and remembering helping your mom cut apples for apple pie is an example of a sensory memory. That’s because your senses and your memory are stored in the same part of your brain – your memories are linked to the sense connected with them.
For purposes of thinking about trauma and the impact on an individual, we divide the brain into 3 sections – the brain stem (sometimes called the reptilian brain), the limbic system, and the pre-frontal cortex. The brain stem is the lowest part of the brain and the cortex is the top of the brain. The brain stem controls all activities that take place in the body that one doesn’t think about or control – breathing, heartbeat, digestion, etc. The limbic system is the part of the brain where memories, senses, and emotions are stored. The pre-frontal cortex contains language, thinking, organization, planning, etc.
The brain grows and works from the bottom up. When a lower part of the brain is activated, the higher part(s) of the brain go “off-line” and don’t function. The age of the person experiencing the trauma has an impact on where that trauma is both stored and predominantly experienced. For a very young child, whose pre-frontal cortex is not developed, there may be no verbal memory of that experience, but the body and senses remember through the experience in the brain stem and/or the limbic system.
When a trauma is experienced, the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and body sensations of that trauma all enter the brain through the limbic system. The experience also goes into the pre-frontal context. Depending on the nature of the trauma, the limbic system may be highly activated and at times overwhelmed, causing the Pre-frontal Cortex to go off-line and become disengaged. A person who is experiencing a trauma may not be capable of rational thinking at the time of the trauma or in the future when remembering or re-experiencing the trauma. Their ability to explain what happened during that experience may be impaired, yet their body and their senses are acutely aware of the experience.
Even if they are able to talk about their experience, the sensory memories that are stored in their limbic system will always be primarily impacted by that event. That person may be reminded of the trauma (or triggered) by the smell of the shaving lotion used by their sexual perpetrator or by a song that was playing on the radio when they learned of a loved-one’s death. The connections between a traumatic event, the sensory experiences of the event and the emotional experience of the event all become a part of how that event in stored in one’s memory.
No two individuals experience a trauma in the same way, because they each come to that experience with a different background and a different internal (biological/emotional) make-up. What is experienced as a major traumatic event for one person, could be experienced as a minor bump in the road by another. In the same way, no two individuals will require the same support or treatment to become a trauma survivor. In many cases, particularly when there has been intense sensory arousal, treatment will require sensory methods to allow expression of those experiences in order to recover. A few sensory methods of treatment include art, sand tray, play therapy, yoga and other body movement activities.
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.
The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog by Bruce Perry, M.D.
The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children