Monday, August 6, 2012


Hello again.  Or if you have come to this page without looking at PART ONE, well, check it out to have a better understanding of where we are picking up, here in Part Two.

In Part One, we introduced our three brains and offered a very simple but accurate picture of how the the three brains function and interact with most of the emphasis on the thinking and feeling brains.  Here we are going to delve into our survival brain in greater detail.

Here is the conclusion of Part One.
Now, when the brain stem does go into action, it cuts off the dialogue between the thinking brain and the feeling brain, and we go on what we call auto pilot.  It's not really auto pilot because the brain stem is running the show, but the brain stem does not have the ability to think or make decisions.  It simply moves us in a direction of survival and relies heavily upon any previous behaviors that have resulted in our saving our ass in moments of danger.  This is the way everyone's brain stem works.  And these are the critical pieces in understanding how our brain functions and the critical pieces in understanding why Post Traumatic Stress is a gift.

When we switch on to auto pilot, we stop trying to figure things out.  We basically stop thinking, and we no longer feel whatever it is we are feeling.  We begin experiencing whatever is going on from a place outside our body, so to speak, from a position of observation.  We often describe this phenomenon as “watching myself go through the motions.”  We make very unthoughtful and sometimes outrageous decisions, but it is all in the effort of surviving or saving someone else. And if we succeed in surviving, then the brain stem is quite excited and tells us to save that behavior for the future, for the next time we are in danger.

So I’m sure you’ve heard stories about four-foot ten, one-hundred pound Mom, looking out the kitchen window and seeing her toddler run over by a car.  Mom does not think, does not call for help.  She runs out into the street and does whatever it takes, including picking up the car, to save her child.  She does not think ahead of time if it is even possible for her to pick up a car nor does she feel the pain in her muscles when she does pick up the car.  She acts totally on auto pilot and saves her child and saves the day.

Or you may have heard about people in burning buildings leaping from windows and living to tell about it.  There may have been many other options available.  For example, a fire escape, a voice on a loud speaker telling them to move to the roof or informing them that a ladder is being extended up to the window ledge and that a fireman will assist them.  But they see or hear nothing.  The conversation between the thinking and feeling brain is shut down by the brain stem, and the brain stem is looking for the “best” way to survive.  And so they jump.  Miraculously, they survive, sometimes without a broken bone, sometimes with every bone broken, but surviving nevertheless.

Okay, so we survived.  Now what?  Well, there is more.

When we do go through an over-the-top event (trauma), the chemicals necessary to “process” this event into our memory, so that we know the event is over, it happened yesterday, last week, twenty years ago, those chemicals are neutralized by all the adrenalin flowing through our brain, much the same way a car battery is neutralized by pouring baking soda into it.

As a result, the traumatic event never becomes PAST.  The event itself, especially the facts of the event disappear much like our dreams when we wake up.  But what doesn’t disappear are the emotions associated with the trauma: the fear, the anxiety, the pain, the horror, the absolute helplessness. These emotions are “stored” or “remembered” unconsciously in our feeling brain, specifically in the amygdala.  They just sit there, “stored” waiting for an opportunity to be triggered or fired off in response to anything that even remotely reminds the brain of the initial trauma.  This triggering process occurs almost completely outside our conscious awareness.

Why does it happen this way?  Well, I am not God, so I cannot give the final word about the way my brain works, but it seems obvious to me, so here is my obvious explanation.

When I am at risk of dying, there really is no time to think.  There is time only for action, life-saving action.  And if I were to feel whatever it is that I am feeling (pain, fear, terror, helplessness), I might just pass out or shrivel up and die on the spot.  So just like our facial muscles are preprogrammed to move into nine different configurations, so our brain stem is preprogrammed to respond to trauma or over-the-top events in a specified manner.

The first thing that happens is the brain stem sends a signal to our adrenalin reservoirs to dump large quantities of adrenalin into our system.  One immediate result of excess adrenalin is the shutting down of the dialogue between the thinking and the feeling brain.  The adrenalin also gives us incredible strength for whatever action we take.  At the same time, the excessive adrenalin makes it impossible for us to remember the event or to process the event into our hippocampus or conscious memory.

Perhaps, if we were able to remember the event the same way we remember other events, we would be repeatably traumatized for days on end and eventually wear out and die.   So making it impossible for us to remember. completes the effectiveness of being on auto pilot and observing ourselves from a distance, so to speak, observing ourselves without thought or feeling as we move through the motions of survival.  What a gift!

Now, our brain stem does NOT have the ability to think, to assess, or to debrief.  At the end of the day when the trauma is over, the brain stem never asks if you are half dead.  It only asks if you survived!  And, if the answer is YES, then the brain stem is quite excited and shouts, “ALRIGHT!  So, the next time we are in this same situation, we are going to do exactly what we did today.”  So there is the rub, perhaps the only rub, because, after all, we did survive.  But it is quite possible, that there may have been other options to survive, options that are less injurious and less risky.  And yes, of course, maybe not.  But that is why it is so important to debrief after a trauma.

So, in a sense, God does His or Her part.  God gives us this gift, a survival brain that literally saves our ass in situations where the fear or pain might just outright kill us.  But the REST is up to us.  The rest?  Yes, assessing our survival action, debriefing our emotions, rebalancing our brain chemistry, bringing our thinking and feeling brains back on line, so to speak.  You see, through careful thought and debriefing, we may discover a better way to survive for the next time.  This is not a question of second guessing or playing Monday morning quarterback.  It is simply using our brains to reassess and make our lives more livable and our survival more attainable.
The rest also includes consciously looking at and facing the trauma.  We can do that in the present.  We no longer have to look at the trauma the way we did when it was occurring, because it is, in fact, over and cannot effect us.  And in looking at and facing the trauma, we weave the facts and the emotions of the event into our memory.  If we just try to bury and forget the trauma, we risk remaining disconnected from our thinking brain and feeling brains, and we will risk remaining stuck in survival mode, auto pilot.  Remaining on auto pilot is particularly debilitating for ALL of our relationships, especially relationships with our loved ones.

And here is another part of the gift.  Since the trauma is over and we are buffered from the full impact of the trauma, we are not hard-pressed to do the debriefing work all at once.  We have plenty of time and space for visiting the event. weaving it, and working it into our life, into our history. 

But this debriefing, this weaving and working it in to fabric of our life is an absolute must.  A traumatic event is like a loose thread.  You don’t want to pull on the lose thread nor cut it off.  You do want to weave it back in to the fabric.  So too here.  It’s basically about being whole again and having all of yourself, your thoughts, your emotions, all of your resources available to you, not just survival resources.

In a soon to be published blog BRINGING OUR THINKING AND FEELING BRAIN BACK ON LINE, we will walk through the steps of debriefing and weaving and working the trauma into the fabric of our life.

In our next blog, we will look at the politics of Post Traumatic Stress.  As described in both Part One  and PartTwo, Post Traumatic Stress is a gift.  So how does it become a disorder?   Check out the The Politics of Post Traumatic Stress for the answer.


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