Our Brain on Trauma: What Happens in Survival Mode?

DR. ESSLIN TERRIGHENA explains how trauma impacts our brains.



When we experience a traumatic event, our coping abilities become overwhelmed, and our survival mechanisms are activated. To give us the best chance of survival, relevant areas of our brain, including the limbic system, are prioritized. This enables our body to gear up for fight or flight with hormones and adrenaline. Our senses are heightened, and our responses are enhanced.


Simultaneously, fewer resources are directed to brain areas that are not directly involved in the survival response, including higher cortical areas involved in executive functioning. Thus, there is less capacity for critical thinking or analytical decision-making. The communication between our emotional and cognitive processing areas also largely goes offline.


As a result of the brain’s survival mode, we may be more likely to survive a traumatic event. However, afterward, we may get stuck in our survival mode, which then gets activated whenever there is a trigger that resembles what happened during the traumatic experience. In part, this can be due to the lack of communication between cognitive and emotional areas in survival mode, which prevent the traumatic incident from being appropriately encoded in the context of which it happened. In other words, the brain knows something really bad happened, but is unsure when, where, and sometimes, how. When subsequent triggers occur, the brain identifies these triggers as dangerous, but is unable to identify whether we are back in that really bad situation or not. It often then responds as though the traumatic incident was happening to us again in the here-and-now, and goes into survival mode to help us. In this triggered survival mode, we may feel panic, distress, shortness of breath, enhanced heart rate, restlessness, and trembling – even when we are perfectly safe. Importantly, the effects on the brain can lead to lasting changes in structure and size of the brain regions involved, making it harder to get "unstuck" from our survival mode.


Given the complexity of trauma, addressing it purely at a cognitive level is not sufficient to process an incident and get un-stuck from our survival mode. Much of a traumatic experience is stored in our emotions, bodies, and automatic fight-flight(-freeze-fawn) behaviours. This is why we cannot simply ‘think’ our way out of trauma. Even when we tell ourselves we are safe, our bodies are likely to continue reacting. The response is strong as it is so closely linked to our survival – and that’s our brains primary aim. Trauma therapy targets all four elements of trauma: feelings, thoughts, bodies, and behaviours.


To read more about how therapy can help you reduce distress, check out our article here. To find out more about how trauma therapy can help you, book a consultation with Dr. Terrighena on (852) 2521 4668 or e.terrighena@mind-balance.org.

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