Brain Functioning and the Neurobiological Aspects of Trauma
Understanding the structure and functioning of the brain in relation to the changes that occur to the brain when it is exposed to trauma is an essential aspect of trauma counseling. It is also vital for counselors to understand the consequences of trauma exposure to the brain, thus enhancing the appropriate trauma therapy for the client.
The reading for this week has expounded more on the interaction between the psyche and soma, giving better insight into the different trauma-informed approaches that can be used to promote resilience. This discussion presents the concepts of brain functioning and the neurobiological aspects of trauma that stood out for me based on this week’s reading: Using Neuroscience in Trauma Therapy, Creative and Compassionate Counselling (Uhernik, 2017).
The concept that stood out for me is understanding trauma and the brain. Trauma affects not only the brain but also the nervous system and the entire body. Trauma is defined by the American Psychological Association (APA, n.d.) as the emotional response resulting from a life-threatening event or series of events that a person experiences, which may have lasting effects on the persons functioning, negatively impacting their mental, social and emotional wellbeing.
According to Uhernik (2017), the limbic system structures of the brain are formed in a way that they are always on the lookout to detect environmental threats and hazards that may affect the individual. The limbic system structures include the thalamus, hypothalamus, hippocampus, amygdala, basal ganglia, and cingulate Gyrus.
The limbic system detects the threats from the data input received from the sensory organs. An individual previously exposed to trauma has memory fragments of the traumatic experience and events stored in the brain. The limbic system uses these memory fragments and the connection from early sensory experiences to detect events that can be dangerous.
Elman and Borsook (2018) note that the human body has a threat response system in which the limbic system steers to counter the threats from the sensory organs. When the danger is detected, the individual undergoes a series of psychological events, with the aim and desired outcome being immediate survival.
Different individuals respond to danger stimuli differently, depending on factors such as whether the individual has been exposed to trauma before and whether they are restrained from fleeing. Individuals respond to immediate danger by flight, fight, freeze, or faint (Uhernik, 2017).
According to Singh and Aballay (2019), the flight or fight response is dominated by the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. The hypothalamus is stimulated to release corticotrophin, chemical messengers, to the nervous system. The nervous system, in turn, activates the pituitary glands, signaling the adrenal glands to release stress response hormones such as adrenaline. The release of stress response hormones calls the body to immediate action by increasing the heart rate and blood flow. Thus, the individual can take the fastest action possible and thus get out of danger.
With an understanding of the brain, its networks, and the response triggered in times of traumatic experiences, therapists can assist trauma clients in developing/learning and experiencing self-regulation of the nervous system functioning (Uhernik, 2017). In addition, this understanding helps therapists to know which steps to take when attending to a trauma client.
First and foremost, the therapist is supposed to help the client achieve a balanced state between nervous system hyper or hypo-arousal levels. The step is essential since it allows the client to get calm, thus easing the following steps, which include processing other trauma-related materials. When the client achieves a sense of safety, the therapist later helps them achieve a desirable window of tolerance.
The window of tolerance concept means that an individual’s nervous system is at a balanced level, not too immobilized and not too activated. An overactive sympathetic nervous system arousal may lead to hypervigilance, anxiety, and an inability to process information and solve problems within the brain’s cortical areas.
On the other hand, an underactive nervous system may lead to numbness, dissociative responses, and immobility. Therefore, it is integral to assist the client in achieving a desirable window of tolerance.
It is worth noting that the overall goal of trauma treatment is to ensure that the client’s nervous system is functioning healthily and achieves a physiological balance. When a desirable window of tolerance is achieved, the therapist finally helps the client learn how to self-regulate their nervous system.
Even though most trauma clients seek therapy when they are in hyperarousal or hypo-arousal states, some can live with the condition for a while before seeking medical help. However, chronic depression may negatively affect all functional areas since the brain may wear and tear and eventually break down (Uhernik, 2017).
In conclusion, understanding the brain’s functioning and the interconnection between the nervous system and the brain makes it easy for the therapist to understand the client better. It is also important to grasp the concept and the interconnection of the brain and trauma. Hence, the therapist can assess the client and help them achieve the goal of trauma treatment.
Elman, I., & Borsook, D. (2018). Threat Response System: Parallel Brain Processes in Pain Vis-à-vis Fear and Anxiety. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 9, 29. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00029
Singh, J., & Aballay, A. (2019). Microbial Colonization Activates an Immune Fight-and-Flight Response via Neuroendocrine Signaling. Developmental Cell, 49(1), 89–99.e4. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.devcel.2019.02.001
The American Psychological Association (APA). (n.d.). Trauma. https://www.apa.org/topics/trauma#:~:text=Trauma%20is%20an%20emotional%20response,symptoms%20like%20headaches%20or%20nausea.
Uhernik, Julie A. (2017). Using Neuroscience in Trauma Therapy, Creative and Compassionate Counseling. New York, NY: Routledge. ISBN: 9781138888128.
Assignment Description: Brain Functioning and the Neurobiological Aspects of Trauma
What concept of brain functioning, or neurobiological aspect of trauma had the greatest impact on you this week as you read through Julie Uhernick\'s, Using Neuroscience in Trauma Therapy? Understanding the \"Trauma Brain\" and the myriad of consequences facing the brain as it is impacted by trauma is essential foundationally for doing good trauma therapy. Please take the time to elaborate on the topic you choose. One of the resources is: Uhernik, Julie A. (2017). Using Neuroscience in Trauma Therapy, Creative and Compassionate Counseling. New York, NY: Routledge. ISBN: 9781138888128.