Thank You, Brain Researchers (You Might Have Told Me This 20 Years Ago)

I attend a talk at lunchtime today on “Trauma-Informed Approaches to Health Care.” It was given by a woman who heads up a county program that trains health care providers, juvenile justice professionals, teachers and school staff, and others who work with adolescents about trauma. The impact, the symptoms, the needs, the way the brain works, the way an entire system can be set up to reduce the stress on clients. That last item, less stressful school and justice and health systems, was fascinating, and I may write more about it later.

amygdala-fear-center-400pxWhat I’ve been thinking about this evening is the part about trauma and the brain. I’ve heard and read bits and pieces about this before but never really had it all put together. The presenter talked about how our frontal lobe is not just for executive function, but also for narrative memory. When we are in the midst of trauma, however, our frontal lobe shuts down, and it’s the amygdala, with it’s fight-flight-freeze reactions that takes over. And the memories from those experiences are not stored in the frontal lobe. Instead they are stored in fragments (colors, smells, sensory experiences) in the limbic system. The body remembers in its senses and in its instinctive reactions to particular triggers. This is the vastly oversimplified version of what she explained to us.

Click! The sound of something falling in place for me. This may be why I associate pain at the opening of my vagina with a gold couch and afternoon sunshine coming in a window. Shame with a wet nightgown hidden in the closet. Partial memories and lots of questions. It is normal not to have a clear, coherent story to tell, especially about the things that happened when I was very young.

I feel so relieved to know that. This is how brains work. It is so great that brain researchers have come to figure out how different parts of the brain function, what trauma does to that functioning, and what that means for different types of memory.

I just wish I’d had this information 20 years ago, when I was continually punishing myself for making up disgusting stories that couldn’t possibly be true because I didn’t have any “real” memories, just impressions and sensations. I felt like other people’s stories were their real stories, and they deserved care and compassion. Mine, however, was just one more example of me trying to get sympathetic attention for myself. And it was especially loathsome that I did this by making up terrible things about my dad.

It wasn’t just 20 years ago, of course. I was still doing it a year ago. And off and on for the 19 years in between. Why didn’t they tell me sooner?!? The fact that science didn’t know this 20 years ago is no excuse! I mean, it is of course, but damn, I suffered more than I needed to because of that self-doubt.

I feel a little sadness about those years.I feel I wasted precious time from my life hating myself for something that was just a normal reaction to unhealthy experiences.

But more than sad,  I also feel happy that I can free myself of that doubt once and for all. Also I feel happy that I finally, finally, am free of the pain from my surgery seven weeks ago. Today I took my first “longer” walk with the dogs (1.75 miles, not that long but the longest since before the surgery), and I feel good. And although I haven’t seen E for twenty-four long days, I know I will see her in just four more days, Tuesday afternoon.

It was also incredibly encouraging to hear that the way systems are working with traumatized youth is increasingly through teaching them about how their brains work, especially under stress, and then helping them develop mindfulness to manage their reactions. In fact, they’ve been teaching this to children as young as six years old (link to the see-it-and-be-impressed video here).

I’ve been working on my own mindfulness meditation (every day for 20 days straight so far, before that much more off and on). It’s exciting to hear about the research supporting the way that mindfulness works on the brain. It gives me hope, and what do we need more than that for our healing?

 

28 thoughts on “Thank You, Brain Researchers (You Might Have Told Me This 20 Years Ago)

  1. Good for you. Hope and a good walk in nature. The brain is so complex. My mum had brain surgery a year ago which went badly and she lost a huge chunk of her frontal lobe. Sadly she can’t talk anymore and I don’t know what memories she has. There’s so much that doctors and neurosurgeons just don’t know. So much.

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    • My father was in a car accident 30-some years ago and also had frontal lobe brain damage. He never lost his speech, but he did lose a lot of that narrative memory. He also lost a lot of judgment and impulse control, so he is very easily taken advantage of.

      Can your mom understand when others talk to her, even if she can’t reply? Or is all language lost to her now?

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      • Sorry to hear about your dad. It’s hard to see them go through this kind of suffering. With my mum it’s hard to know if she understands. I think sometimes she does, but it’s very fleeting.

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  2. So glad you’re feeling well enough to take a walk with the dogs!

    Thank you for sharing this information on the brain. Memory is a tricky thing. I know how frightened I was when some repressed memories surfaced. Came out of the blue, and took my breath away.

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      • That’s a good question. I guess I believed them right away. They came back with such force! But later, I doubted myself. Wondered if my fevered brain just made it all up. Questioning myself – doubting what I was remembering – yes, that was very tough. I went back and forth – believing and then not believing myself – many times. I’ve had similar reactions to ideas that frighten me. I accept it for a little bit and then reject it out of fear. That’s normal, I think.

        I know it’s hard sometimes, Q. You look back at your life and see all that wasted time when you believed a lie or didn’t believe yourself. But I don’t think that journey was a waste, nor any of your time spent on that path. Miss one step and you wouldn’t be you, Q. From what I know of your blog, that would be a pity, because you’ve been worth every step, every minute you took to get you to today.

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  3. Love this! It is so validating to hear about the physical changes that occur because of trauma. It makes so much sense – OHH, my brain is physically altered. There are legitimate reasons (aside from the judgments I have about myself) for why I experience the world the way I do. It is hard not to lapse into thinking about the past. It is, and you’re doing a marvelous job with everything. Also glad E is back Tuesday. It sure will be a comfort to see her again.

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    • It will be good to have her back. I’ve really turned off much of my emotions for the time she’s been gone. Just yesterday and today, I can feel things stirring up again in anticipation of the opportunity to talk to her.

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  4. I am so glad that you’re feeling better and not in pain. That’s a huge deal. And I’m glad that E comes back soon – I imagine that it has been challenging. Thinking about you and I hope your next session with her goes really well.

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    • Thanks, me too! I mean I hope the session will go well too. It will feel strange at the start, I know, after a month without seeing her. I feel kind of distanced from her, but I expect she will be warm and also happy from her vacation, and she’ll make it easier for me to open up again.

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  5. Dear Q: I see you do have The Body Keeps the Score on your reading list. It helped me a bunch. I am not a disgusting perv for all of a sudden, walking down the street, having the grossest sexual scene in my head, propulsive vomiting. It IS a memory. Poor sweet baby girl. So glad you are doing well, Q. TS

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  6. Wow!! Wow!!!! This is incredible! I totally relate to you about how you punish yourself repeatedly for not having “real” memories. I’ve often felt like I don’t have “real” memories either – that I’m really just making stuff up for attention but at the core of it, I feel it in my gut that something is amiss – I only have fragments of memory from the time I was a child. But when I read your post, it makes perfect sense. Wow… Thanks for sharing!

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