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Brain Gains: How Traumatic Events Effect the Brain

Ever heard the the phrase “They flipped their lid?” I’m sure we have all been there. The “oops” moment where our emotions may have oh so slightly got the best of us. That moment when we may have done something/said something somewhat regrettable. Or maybe you just stood there like a deer in the headlights dissociating? No?... oh yah, me neither….. *cough* but just in case you know someone who has (not you of course and certainly not me) I am here to tell you what actually happens inside us when we “flip our lid.”

The human brain is possibly one of the most fascinating organs in the human body. Weighing in at a whopping 3 lbs and impressively equipped with unlimited storage space (sorry Marie Kondo the brain was built for hoarding), and strong enough to power a light bulb AND mostly made up of fat! The logic behind having such a powerful mechanism in our own body is rather… well, mind blowing! What is seemingly more baffling is the brain's own ability to shut down and go “offline.” How could such a strong and powerful thing crumble in the face of certain events with its superhuman abilities? This of course is where we throw some mental health awareness sauce on it.

When we start to understand why our bodies work the way they do, we can begin to work with rather than against them. #Braingains

There are three parts of the brain that are affected when we are faced with high stress and traumatic events.

  1. The Prefrontal Cortex: This is the part of your brain that is responsible for cognitive processing, language, thinking, awareness and mindfulness.

  2. The Limbic System: This is where emotions are created (happiness, sadness, fear, anger) as well as where memories are stored or in some cases… suppressed.

  3. Cerebellum (aka Brain Stem, aka Reptilian brain): Controls breathing, circulation, arousal, and balance.

Our brain's ability to “turn off,” “shut down,” or “flip your lid” may seem like a deficiency and yet once broken down it is rather interesting. This is actually our brains way of keeping ourselves safe. When the prefrontal cortex and limbic system stop communicating (due to high stress, alarming events, grief, anything traumatic really) our brains sometimes go into what is known as flight, flight, or freeze, and the Cerebellum cortex takes over. The Cerebellum, otherwise known as the “reptilian brain” (don’t worry, there isn't a lizard back there! GODZILLA!) is referred to as the “reptilian brain” because it is the oldest and first part of our brain to form. Our Prefrontal Cortex being the newest part of our brain sometimes “flips” under stress sending control elsewhere.

Now when we think about this “Reptilian brain” as the oldest part of our brain and its purpose being fight, flight, freeze, SURVIVE, it makes sense. This part of our brain causes us to make decisions solely based off a high emotional state. Our brains naturally had to go into a survival mode during earlier years of human existence, you know fighting saber tooth tigers and hunting bears. Times were a lot less forgiving then. But in this day and age we don’t need the back of our brains to override as often as it does. Sure, we need its function 100%; it keeps us alert, safe, and has our best interest of staying alive at its forefront. It’s what gives us that feeling of, “Hey maybe it's not a good idea to walk down that dark and eerie alley…” but it’s over-activation can be debilitating and actually send us into a chaotic cocktail (cocktail of what?) if not handled properly. Luckily, psychologists have figured out ways to strengthen our Prefrontal Cortex to keep us cool during high stake/high stress situations allowing us to make high quality survival/better critical thinking decisions. When we work from our prefrontal cortex we are able to work through more productive ways of problem solving and not acting out of intense emotions. Some refer to this as using our “Wise Mind.”

Ways to strengthen our Prefrontal Cortex:

  1. Meditation - trains you to concentrate and be present in the moment.

  2. Exercises that push you past your comfort zone and challenge you. Learning material arts, yoga, strength training, aerial acrobats, dance, etc.

  3. Practicing self control and resisting urges.

  4. Having good sleep hygiene and a healthy sleep routine.

  5. Playing memory games or using brain training apps like the ones found here.

  6. Cleaning up your diet can be effective as well. Eating foods that nourish your brain can assist in better function. Food can be found here. (I personally know my brain feels a lot better when I eat salmon for dinner instead of a cheeseburger)

So you might be wondering why we would want to keep our Prefrontal Cortex as the commander of the ship if our Cerebellum was built to keep us alive… and that's a great question. Fact of the matter is that we want each area of the brain to be working together simultaneously. When we use our Prefrontal Cortex in tandem with other areas of our brain, we are able to communicate our needs more effectively, stay balanced, and manage stress in a positive way.

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