Understanding Trauma


According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary trauma is “1. A deeply distressing experience. 2. Physical injury. 3. Emotional shock following a stressful event.”


From a Christian standing point what we think about is incredibly important because God cares about this:

“Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy- think about such things……And the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4.23

And trauma disrupts this peace and can deeply disturb an individual and cause high degrees of mental distress and disrupted thoughts and may result in OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) as well as causing psychosomatic symptoms such as migraine or nausea or lack of appetite, sleep disturbance and nightmares amongst many other ailments.

I have written a little on this subject in an earlier blog but here I would like to explain a little more of what goes on in the brain and how in therapy we can address this.

When trauma occurs there is a huge physical and mental reaction at the time of the incident, or with Complex Trauma, the chronic incidences. Complex Trauma is repeated events over a period of time such as repeated incidents of childhood sexual abuse.

The physical experience of trauma causes the brain to be flooded with a stress hormone, cortisol. This affects the hippocampus, of which there are 2, 1 located on the left and 1 on the right hand side in the Limbic System under the cortex or Executive Brain. When the hippocampus is flooded it disrupts narrative memory being laid down and so trauma memories are often fragmented such as flashbacks.

Simultaneously the HPA (Hypothalamus Pituitary Adrenal) axis is triggered resulting in a massive rush of adrenalin released from the adrenal glands just above the kidneys. The effects of this result in physical symptoms of intense stress and may cause anxiety or panic attack. The body and brain move into the sympathetic response directing the blood flow to the deep muscles and brain to facilitate escape as we are now into fight or flight or freeze mode. Because of this redirecting of the blood hands and feet may feel cold and as the blood is no longer aiding digestion, loss of appetite, indigestion or nausea may occur.

Addressing this in therapy involve rewiring the brain or reshaping neural networks, by working with the client’s stress levels. When the anxiety is acute mindfulness techniques and somatic interventions play a crucial role. This involves using physical experiences in the therapy room to affect the body and mind chemistry. The insula is responsible for interoception, that is, where the experiences in the body are registered in the brain. The messages then go to the amygdala which Bessel Van Der Kolk calls the “smoke alarm” in other words this registers danger and responds, triggering the appropriate chemistry.
Somatic techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing, EFT (Emotional Freedom Therapy) and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) all effect the body chemistry and therefore the brain!

Diaphragmatic breathing pushes the diaphragm down to press on the vegus nerve which triggers the autonomic nervous system into the parasympathetic reaction calming the body down. This sends sensory information back up to the thalamus and amygdala that the danger is over and relaxing hormones, such as oxytocin, serotonin, noradrenalin and dopamine, are released into the brain. This is known as bottom up regulation.

EFT works similarly causing bilateral bottom up regulation as it involves physically tapping rhythmically from left to right with either hand or feet. Bilateral stimulation involves using both sides of the hemispheres of the brain, which again brings regulation and reduces the over- activity of the amygdala which is responsible the high levels of anxiety.

EMDR results in all 3 forms of regulation, bottom up, top down and bilateral stimulation. EMDR needs to be worked with very sensitively with titration and pendulation, monitoring the client’s subjective units of distress to prevent the client getting flooded with overwhelming distress at the memory.

In therapy, the trauma is recalled, i.e. it is taken from the hippocampus to the prefrontal cortex where it can be thought about afresh. The neural network of the trauma can be reshaped as new positive thoughts are introduced. Trauma is most powerful because of the high level of intense emotions involved. Memory reconsolidation is the term used here as this is when the emotional content of the trauma memory is modified.

EMDR facilitates this process as well as talking therapy, where, with Christian counselling the Holy Spirit helps us apply the Bible. And with prayer, the Lord’s words are used to heal and encourage clients.

“I have told you these things, so that you will have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16.33.

All Bible quotations are from the NIV.
Copyright © 2021 Susie Scott Kydd.