The Brain, Trauma and Hope

Abuse , Blog , Family , Grief , Relationships , Self-Care


The Brain, Trauma and Hope

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk is a noted psychiatrist, researcher and professor. He has dedicated his professional life to studying the effects that PTSD and trauma have on the brain and thus the entirety of the human person. In his DVD lecture Neuroscience and Trauma Therapy, he outlines brain development, the importance of early secure attachment and the effects of trauma.  Dr. van der Kolk begins with a discussion of the formation of the human brain, stating that the human brain, by means of touch, feeling, movement and relationship, develops in relation to the interactions that we have within our environment. Furthermore, if one of these areas is overtly neglected there is a neurological impact. Thus, if a person grows up in an invalidating, abusive or threating environment, future behaviors and decisions are guided by the learned response patterns to the particular threat.

Once a person has experienced a substantial amount of fear or the persistence of threat, the brain, specifically the frontal lobe shuts down in response to fear/threat and our primal instinct, located deep in the amygdala (responsible for our emotions and where/how memories are stored) takes over sending out an alarm and our response becomes fight, flight or freeze. If the situation in which we found ourselves was one in which we could not move away from or through, our stress hormones are secreted and our neurological response is to freeze. Therefore the event(s) are unable to be truly processed and our physiological reaction during the moment of the event can keep being activated years after the traumatic event has taken place – for example the effects of  PTSD. Thus, trauma is not actually what happened back in the past but rather the imprint that is left on our emotional brain in the present  – the past becomes present and we can exhibit reactions based on the event even though the actual event may be long behind us.

The question then becomes to what degree can we change the brain and thus our response pattern once we have experienced a traumatic event? According to the latest research it has been shown that our brains are continuously developing and due to this neuroplasticity and the brains capacity to grow, adapt and change the way in which it responds there is great hope and healing for those of us who have experienced some form of past traumatic experience. The latest research on brain development enables us to recognize that we when have undergone a trauma, whether it be having been bullied as a child or something as severe as sexual abuse, our brain is not able to work in sync to process information regarding our experience and therefore the specific goal of trauma therapy is to enable our brain to be fully focused on the present –by means of reorganizing the way the traumatic event is stored.

Our body, our brain and our capacity to self-regulate and heal is truly amazing and once we can identify any of the traumatic events that we have experienced throughout our lives we begin the first step towards the adaptive processing of the information. According to Dr. van der Kolk there are a variety of ways in which this re-wiring can begin, continue and in many cases lead to the freedom that comes from the adaptive processing of traumatic events. Some of his recommendations, such as yoga and mindfulness exercises, incorporate the importance of relationship, physical movement and developing an awareness of self. Another powerful way in which to address past trauma and free the present from its effects is by means of a trauma therapy, named EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). EMDR is a mode of therapy that “facilitates the processing of traumatic experience to the point of adaptive resolution. In other words, EMDR can help desensitize the trauma, so that its association with physical and emotional distress is reduced. EMDR can help people recognize and work on feelings and thoughts that come up with the trauma. It can help people think differently about themselves and the world in relation to the trauma. EMDR appears to stimulate a natural healing mechanism allowing for spontaneous movement toward health.”

If you would like more information on EMDR or if the information in this article has resonated with you, The Refuge Center for Counseling has staff therapists and Master’s Level Interns who are here to explore the impact that the past may be having on your present and help you as you journey towards integration and healing. For more information you can visit our website at: or call our office at 615-591-5262.

As well, The Refuge Center for Counseling also offers Christian Yoga Classes on Friday afternoons from 12-1pm. For more information:

Information was gathered from the DVD: Neuroscience and Trauma Therapy and from


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