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Trauma and the Amygdala

No one experiences and reacts to trauma the same way. Two different people can face the exact same trauma, involving the exact same people, and still respond to that very trauma differently. A part of the reason why this happens is because of the amygdala. 

What is the amygdala?

The amygdala is a part of the limbic system in the brain. The soul purpose of the amygdala is to protect us. This fast working protector processes our environment, looks for familiar cues, and processes it to see if there is a threat. As the amygdala processes our surroundings, it sends messages to the brain. If the amygdala detects a threat, it alerts the brain immediately!

How does the amygdala know there is a threat?

Our memories play a huge factor into the function of the amygdala. Anytime we experience something, the amygdala takes note of the emotions attached to the experiences and perceives it as positive or negative. As we go through life, the amygdala checks it’s “library” of recall to see how to respond to new experiences in order to anticipate threats. 

The Amygdala and Trauma

The amygdala plays a crucial role in survival and feeling safe. However, when a person experiences trauma, or multiple traumas, the amygdala can play a role in PTSD and trauma response. It is common for people who have experienced trauma to feel “jumpy,” hyperarousal, or triggered even when safe from the trauma. This is where the amygdala comes into play. Any reminder of our trauma, even if it doesn’t directly relate to the trauma, can set off the amygdala alarm. For example, a person may have been assaulted by someone who was wearing a red shirt. Now, any time they see a red shirt they go into a state of panic or feel unsafe.  What is happening is the red shirt was familiar to the amygdala and reminded it of the trauma, indicating it as a threat, and sending the message to the brain to be on alert. Even though logically we know that not everyone wearing a red shirt is a threat, the amygdala is “overworking” in order to keep the person safe.

How can we help the amygdala when there’s a trigger?

Grounding is key! When experiencing a trigger from trauma, it feels like we are reliving the past, the trauma. The purpose of grounding techniques brings the brain back to the here and now- a safe place. Below is an example of a grounding strategy that can slow down the brain and bring it back to the present. 

The 5 senses:

Focus on where you are at. Then as you take slow and active deep breaths, lists as many things related to the five senses in the place you are at:

Things you can see.

Things you can touch.

Things you can hear.

Things you can smell.

Things you can taste.

By doing this grounding activity, it reminds the brain that you are not back in the place of trauma. It confirms that you are safe.