If you've been following this website for a while, then you'll already know that there's a growing consensus among people who don't have vested interests in pushing the 'chemical imbalance' theory of mental illness that trauma is the MAIN underlying reason for pretty much any mental illness you care to mention.
Although the vested interests are still fighting to keep this information under wraps, more and more research is building up to prove the point, and you can find a lot of it in Bessel van Der Kolk's excellent book: The body keeps the score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma.
In that book, Van Der Kolk (who is a psychiatrist specialising in trauma) explains:
“I made a review of all the patients I had treated. Almost all had in some way been trapped or immobilized, unable to take action to stave off the inevitable. Their fight / flight response had been thwarted, and the result was either extreme agitation or collapse.”
In this post, I want to share some of 'headline' findings, so you can start to see for yourself how traumatic experiences cause mental health problems, and how healing the physiological response to trauma is the key to achieving good mental health.
Ready? Here we go!
STRESS HORMONES AND PTSD
A group of researchers including Steve Southwick and John Krystal and Yale, Arieh Shalev at Hadassah, Frank Putnam at NIMH, and Roger Pitman at Harvard found that traumatized people keep on secreting large amounts of stress hormones long after the actual danger has passed.
Meanwhile, researcher Rachel Yehuda at Mount Sinai found that people with PTSD have low levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol triggers the ‘all clear’ message that the danger has passed, and the stress response can be called off by the body. This message doesn’t get sent in people with PTSD.
When people have been traumatized, and have PTSD, it means that their fight / flight / freeze response is permanently switched on, and their stress hormones (particularly adrenaline) spike higher than normal to perceived threats, and either don’t return to normal baseline levels at all, or take a very long time to reduce back down to normal. This excess of stress hormones swirling around their bodies causes feelings of agitation and panic, and can lead to any number of mental and physical health issues, over the longer term, which usually form the basis of psychosis.
ADDICTED TO EXCITEMENT
For example, many traumatized people seek out experiences that non-traumatised people would find repellent, bizarre or unpleasant. PTSD people often complain about feeling empty or bored when their lives aren’t full of stress, danger or conflict, so they frequently engage in risk-taking and 'crazy' types of behaviour to fill that hole.
THE ROLE OF THE AMYGDALA
The amygdala (two almond-shaped clusters of cells on either side of the brain) determines whether something is a threat or not, but in a very crude at-a-glance way.
Van Der Kolk did a brain-scanning experiment with volunteers who had experienced trauma, to see which parts of the brain were aroused or shut down by traumatic experiences. Intense emotions activate the limbic system, and particularly the part of the limbic system known as the amygdala.
The amygdala warns of pending danger or threat, and activates the body’s stress response, or fight-or-flight response. Van Der Kolk’s study clearly showed that when traumatized people are presented with triggering images, sounds or thoughts related to their traumatic experiences, it sparks the amygdala off again – even if it’s years or decades after the event.
The amygdala acts as a ‘fear centre’ in the brain. When it’s activated, that sets off a progression of cascading stress hormones and nerve impulses that increases blood pressure, hastens the beating of the heart, and ups oxygen intake (the sympathetic nervous system is associated with the ‘in’ breath), ready for fight and flight.
Even when a person’s body and emotional brain register a threat, some people are so traumatized they simply go into denial, where the conscious mind goes on as though nothing has happened.
But the stress hormones still cascade through their bodies, the stress response is still primed by the emotional brain – just they don’t respond to it all, in any conscious way. Again, this is often a prime cause of physical and mental illnesses.
To quote Van Der Kolk again:
“Medications, drugs and alcohol can also temporarily dull or obliterate unbearable sensations and feelings. But the body continues to keep the score.”
Broca’s area is one of the speech centres of the brain (located in the left frontal lobe). When it isn’t functioning properly, or the blood supply is decreased or cut off to that area, you can’t express your thoughts and feelings as words.
In Van Der Kolk’s brain scanning experiments, the Broca area went ‘offline’ every time a trauma victim was experiencing a flashback. In his words:
“All trauma is preverbal.”
One of the defining hallmarks of trauma is that what you experienced can’t really be communicated to others, even many years’ after the event. While the body is thrown back into the physical aspects of the traumatic event or memory – the fear, rage and helplessness of being caught up in ‘inescapable shock’ – and you have an overwhelming urge to run away or punch someone, you still can’t describe why.
Again, this situation can easily cause people to feel like - and even act like - they're literally going mad.
LEFT BRAIN VS RIGHT BRAIN
The left brain is logical and rational – it remembers facts, statistics, timelines, other ‘organisational’ details. The right brain remembers sounds, physical sensations, smells and emotions. To quote Van Der Kolk:
“Deactivation of the left hemisphere has a direct impact on the capacity to organize experience into logical sequences, and translate shifting feelings and perceptions into words…Without sequencing, we can’t identify cause and effect, grasp the long-term effects of our actions, or create coherent plans for the future.”
Again, this behaviour is clearly underneath a whole bunch of serious mental issues, ranging from depression and anxiety, through to personality disorders like Narcissism, BPD and ASPD, right up to things like DID, and the more severe mental disorders.
When old trauma is triggered in the present, the right brain reacts as though the trauma is happening again RIGHT NOW! As the left brain is usually shut down or not working very well (as occurred in the original traumatic state) the traumatized person doesn’t register that they are reacting to something from the past. They feel angry, petrified, frozen, incandescent or ashamed – but they have no idea why. Which is when they start to look for scapegoats in the present – people and situations - to blame for how they’re feeling.
Trauma seriously interferes with self-awareness, because the right and left brains stop working together.
Again, this has a number of huge implications for a person's mental state and healthy mental and emotional functioning.
TO SUM UP:
There are a number of gentle, effective and holistic approaches that are being developed to tackle trauma, which include:
You can find some easy, self-administered techniques for calming down fight or flight by clicking here:
energy exercises to defuse the 'fight or flight' response
Lastly, the infographic at the top of the post shows how the 3 main parts of the brain work together, and how the rational brain (number 3 in the diagram) is responsible for most of our 'executive functioning and thinking'.
As mentioned above, when a person experiences severe trauma, their rational brain goes 'offline' - and that's probably what's causing the symptoms of psychosis / mental illness.
Remove the traumatic response, and the rational brain will 'reconnect' to the rest of the system, and the person will start to feel a whole lot happier and in control.
That, in a nutshell, is how you really cure mental illnesses of all stripes. And when this information starts to really get around a bit more, then it won't be much longer until the drug companies and the psychiatrists go out of business.