The Effect Trauma Has on Your Brain

Survival mode is supposed to be a phase that helps save your life. It is not meant to be how you live.

-Michele Rosenthal-

The brain is divided into three distinct parts: 1) The neocortex, 2) The limbic system, and 3) The reptilian brain. The reptilian brain, though it has the important job of basic functions like breathing and heart pumping, will not be part of this discussion. For our purposes, we’re going to focus on the other two parts of the brain: The limbic system and the neocortex, specifically the front part of the neocortex, the frontal lobe.

In the simplest terms, these two parts of the brain work in concert and interact with each other constantly. They are both vital for our day-to-day functioning and welfare. You can’t fully live without either one of them. They’re both necessary, but unless you understand their functions and how they operate, you can find yourself caught in self-defeating behaviors (something you do, think, or say that causes harm to yourself or others).

The limbic system is where your instinctual drives originate and where your pleasure centers are located. These pleasure centers are extremely powerful in driving your behaviors and can easily lead to addictive, compulsive, or self-defeating behaviors unless they’re understood and managed.

The limbic system has three simple, but powerful, directives:

  1. Survive
  2. Avoid pain
  3. Seek pleasure

A traumatized brain can easily see something as a survival situation when, in reality, it’s not. In other words, a harmless situation can remind you of past trauma and can trigger a survival response and behavior.

When you don’t feel safe, your brain, the limbic system, in particular, will drive you toward things that can provide that feeling of safety. Often that leads to self-defeating behaviors, which gives the limbic system a sense of temporary safety or well-being. Unfortunately, the limbic system cannot distinguish between unhealthy and healthy behaviors as long as the survival need is being met.

Survivors of sexual abuse, in a desire to cope, may turn to drugs, alcohol, or other unhealthy behaviors to run away from the trauma experienced. The rate of addiction among sexual abuse survivors is incredibly high.

Our 5 Strategies to Reclaim Hope are each designed to specifically address the lack of communication between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. If you are struggling with addiction, anxiety, or any other side-effects from your trauma, we encourage you to get the help you need and read through our blogs to see what resources and therapies may help.