We sluffed off our backpacks and pitched our tents in a grassy meadow along Bubbs River in Kings Canyon National Park. Several deer stopped to graze just beyond our campsite. A black bear and two cubs strolled by, unalarmed by our presence (though my breath momentarily clutched even as our cameras flashed). Animals and humans together without fear. Later that
day another deer skittered into our camp wearing a thick leather collar with an antenna projecting off the right side. It inadvertently found itself between myself and another hiker. The deer tried to dart one way then another, perhaps it felt cornered, trapped. It froze. I backed away, created an escape path. Seconds passed before it fled. I felt fear permeated this creature’s existence: it was palpable, undeniable, real.
What happens in a traumatizing instant that creates lasting change?
Was it a memory of restraint, of human beings that triggered immobilization? Do I need to know what, if any, thoughts crossed this animal’s mind during its restraint or is the reality that its brain and body registered a connection between humans and a behavioral response that in my mind indicated fear enough? (A note: Joseph LeDoux states that behavior is not
a reliable indicator of such feelings in animals or human beings; yet, for me, the deer’s movements appeared to be fear- filled.)
Fear: A Biological Response to Trauma
The biological nature of trauma (defined as a life threat in the face of helplessness) is on the forefront of therapeutic conversations. Proponents of body-based approaches accept that trauma is stored in the body and in the limbic system. It is noted as the major center for emotion formation and processing and for learning. The amygdala, located within the temporal
lobe of the brain, is said to be a limbic system structure (though this is debated) that is involved in emotions related to survival—fear, anger, and pleasure. It is also responsible to determine which memories are stored and where they are stored in the brain. The amygdala shifts when we encounter a life-or-death threatening event (associated with fear conditioning).
Of all of the brain’s parts, the amygdala has received most of the attention in regards to trauma. It is said to be directly related to the cascade of responses that activate the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the flight/fight response. Thus, the autonomic nervous system (ANS)—the vegetative unconscious system that runs our body—is critical to trauma. Our defense systems, located in the lower brain levels, determine whether we fight, take flight or disappear and shut down (immobilize).
According to a recent blog post written by Joseph LeDoux, PhD the amygdala’s circuits are “directly responsible for detecting threats and the resultant behavioral/physiological responses elicited by threats that alter information processing in diverse regions of the brain.” One important response that he noted was “thesecretion of chemicals
throughout the brain (norepinephrine, acetylcholine, dopamine, serotonin) and body (hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol). In situations of danger, these chemicals alert us that something important is happening. As a result, attention systems in the neocortex guide the perceptual search of the environment for an explanation of the aroused state.” (Blog quotes retrieved August 17, 2015 from https://www.Psychologicaltoday.com/blog/i-got-mind-tell-you)
Stephen Porges, PhD coined the term ‘neuroception’ to describe the nervous system process to monitor the environment for safety, danger, and life threat. Neuroception evaluates risk to negotiate, navigate, or trigger neural components that regulate autonomic state to fit the environmental context or the particular risk factor in question. It also connects risk
evaluation with social behavior, specifically facial expression, and tone of voice (prosody), gestures and body posture that implicitly and explicitly communicate messages of safety or threat to others. These signals impact what Porges calls the “brain-heart-face circuit” that exists outside our conscious awareness. It functions to control our range of emotional
expression, our quality of communication and accompanying bodily states, including stress related responses (expression of and recovery from). In potentially threatening situations, our social engagement system has the ability to trump the sympathetic nervous system’s arousal and the fight or flight response. Similarly, under threatening situations, in which the social engagement system is already offline, the sympathetic nervous system’s support for fight or flight responses trump immobilization.
LeDoux also wrote that the meaning of present environmental stimuli was augmented by the retrieval of memories. He asserts that “a key part” of his “argument” is that “the amygdala is not directly involved in making feelings of fear” (personal communication, 09.04.2015). “If the stimuli are known sources of danger, ‘fear’ schema are retrieved from memory. The
feeling of fear then, results when the outcome of these various processes (attention, perception, memory, arousal) coalesce in consciousness and compel one to feel fear.” (Retrieved August 17, 2015 from https://www.Psychologicaltoday.com/blog/i-
He stated that the feeling of fear can only happen in brains equipped with the cognitive ability of autonoetic consciousness—the ability to mentally place ourselves in past, present and future situations and analyze our own thoughts. As well, Porges added that while neuroception detects threats, transgenerational messages, genetics, culture, childhood experiences and society convey the notion of what is dangerous.
Looking at treatment approaches then, perhaps it’s not the feeling of fear that needs to be addressed as much as what happens in the brain.
“Our survival brain is not created by culture; there probably are few cross cultural variations,” Bessel van der Kolk, PhD said. “Brain development, and the core processes involved in threat detection and survival, evolved in humans, as it has in all mammals. Trauma changes the brain—and the rational mind, the frontal lobe loses control over the more primitive limbic
brain. The brain circuits change, the fear system changes, and the self system is changed.”
“While the capacity to manage our emotions resides in the cortex. The limbic system primarily processes intense emotional experiences,” he continued. “Faced with trauma our brain automatically activates unconscious mechanisms to survive the experience. When these survival systems get stuck, as happens when people develop PTSD, the changes in our physiology and nervous system create profound changes in the ability to adapt to the world. When we cannot actively fight back or escape a traumatizing situation, or, alternatively, find outside protection, the overwhelming experience may result in a system wide shut down. The result is often distrust (constant vigilance) and difficulties creating supportive relationships, including tolerating people to get close, one of the principal components of healing.”
If we look at trauma’s impact on the human brain from a global perspective, then, as Ian Macnaughton said, “The old adage that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is apt in the sense that from the global perspective there needs to be community awareness through education as well as both individual and group processes that can bring more healing to the traumatic imprints in the nervous system.”
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