The Survival Brain – Let’s Talk About Trauma

How can Trauma affect us?

The Benefit of a Therapy Dog can be Immense

Trauma can have a profound impact in our lives — how we move through the day, interact with others or handle stressful situations. It shows its effects in a multitude of ways, each one dependent on the person affected by it and the context they find themselves in at the moment.

So, why am I writing this post now?

I think it’s timely. I think we are all seeing how the COVID pandemic is having an impact on our community — on our mental and emotional well-being. This past year has been uncertain, restrictive and draining. Many families have suffered through the illness or loss of a loved one, financial strain, the loss of community — and we’ve all felt the limitations of health restrictions and uncertainty. And it’s not quite over yet. The strain on people is obvious. I see it in their faces, their words, their emails and their actions.

Some families in our community have indeed experienced trauma because of the pandemic.

Trauma is both the experience of, and response to, an overwhelmingly negative event or a series of events, including violence. Trauma can take many forms, and can occur once or many times during someone’s life.

Taken from the Public Health Agency of Canada

A trauma injury is typically a hidden injury. But, how it outwardly displays itself can be remarkably different. It can be triggered by a related or unrelated event — show itself as physical, emotional or social behaviours — be consistent or inconsistent. It’s outward sign is not predictable.

But, it is real — and it is within some of our students.

Let’s take a field trip right now and learn a bit about human brain development to help us understand a bit more about what may happen because of trauma to a child’s brain as it grows and matures.

Although the bulk of brain development occurs before birth, the brain continues to develop for the first 5 years. In this formative time, there is an overall expansion of brain volume of both gray matter (the part of the brain that controls voluntary motions, memory and emotions — it’s where we ‘process stuff’) and white matter (the highway system of the brain that allows grey matter to communicate with itself and the rest of the body).

Interestingly, from 7 to 17 years of age there is a continuing increase in white matter, but also a corresponding decrease in gray matter (called ‘neuronal pruning’). Overall brain size stays about the same during these years. So, what that means is that we increase our ability to effectively communicate between areas of the brain, but also prune away at the processing areas that are not being used regularly. This is all normal and happens in everyone. We are fine tuning our brain’s capacity and communication ability.

When trauma is introduced it can alter our brain’s development trajectory.

I recently watched a short presentation by Dr. Jacob Ham that does a masterful job of explaining the potential effect of trauma on a child’s brain.

“Learning Brain VS Survival Brain” is a wonderful synopsis for both parents and educators. It’s a short 5 minute video that is worth your time. Take the few minutes needed and watch it:

Here’s a quick summary:

  • Learning Brain – a brain that is open to learning new information. It is completely OK with ambiguity and vagueness. It can see the ‘big picture’. You can picture it pulling back in it’s perspective and being able to see the entire forest in front of it. It understands context. A person in this state is calm and perhaps even excited about what they are about to learn. They’re confident.
  • Survival Brain – a brain that is hyperfocused on threats. It doesn’t like ambiguity — it can only think in absolutes or ‘black and white’. Emotionally it feels panicky and worried about making mistakes. There is a lack of confidence.

We have the ability to go to Survival Brain quite quickly. Typically, we think of this state when we’re confronted by immediate danger — a car careening towards us on the sidewalk, a black bear growling at us on a wooded trail or a burglar breaking into our home. It is meant to make us hypervigilant and singularly focused on getting us to safety.

All of us have both of these brains in our life. However, when Survival Brain shows up it completely overtakes Learning Brain. And that’s typically a good thing, as Survival Brain is trying to save you from something.

However, a traumatic experience can trigger Survival Brain even when there isn’t an immediate danger. And being traumatized can result in us staying in Survival Brain well beyond any immediate danger. And therein lies the problem — especially for children who may not have other life experiences to help them find a way out of this state.

Everyone Has a Story

And what researchers have found is that if Survival Brain stays on for too long it is much more difficult to find a way back to your Learning Brain.

Students are able to be in Learning Brain when they feel connected with their trusted adults in a school — when they feel safe and secure even when they are panicky and worried.

So, when you see a behaviour that appears out of context — that doesn’t seem to make sense based on the current situation — it’s important to step back and reflect on the possible reasons for it.

“There’s a reason for the behaviour. Maybe what you’re seeing is the effect of trauma from the past. But even if it isn’t, using a personal lens of being trauma informed will help you help them.”

Whether trauma is involved or not, I guarantee you there’s a story and a need for our compassion.

And there’s always a place for more compassion in our world.

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