How Trauma Affects the Brain and How I’m Healing from PTSD

“Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we’ll ever do.” ~Brené Brown 

Several months ago, I was stoked about writing a piece on the living legacy of trauma, sharing how much we think we know about these so-called injuries of the mind, body, and spirit when, in reality, we know diddly squat.

I thought that a piece on this topic would inform and help folks like me. I’d suffered long and hard from PTSD, triggered initially by the sudden death of my brother and, simultaneously, the unfortunate finding of an email that confirmed that my husband of twenty-five years was having an affair with a girl half his age who lived in Germany.

Little did I know that after broaching this idea on an article that explored how trauma manifests itself in intense physical, perceptual, and emotional reactions to everyday things, I would experience the absolute worst trauma imaginable since that fateful day when my world turned into a nightmare that didn’t end when I woke up.

You see, after three years of working virtually with a therapist who specialized in drug and alcohol addiction and trauma—a woman with a gentle English accent and passion for all four-legged creatures (her “family” consisted of a husband, cat, horse, and donkey)—I got a text that rocked my world like a magnitude 10 earthquake. An energy force that, to me, far surpassed what 32 Hiroshima atomic bombs would feel like.

In tiny bold font, I was informed on a Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. that my beloved therapist, Vanessa, had died peacefully at home, surrounded by those who loved her dearly.

Although I should’ve found some sort of comfort in hearing that, I curled up in a fetal position on my deck, letting the warm summer breeze wash over my badly shaking body.

I grabbed the folds in my over-sized Life Is Good T-shirt, using them to wipe away tears that didn’t stop. Not even when I realized that my two Chihuahua rescues were whimpering next to me, confused as to why the sad, high-pitched noises coming out of me sounded a lot like theirs when I left the house.

And although it shouldn’t have come as such a huge surprise after she went into remission after her first bout of ovarian cancer several months ago, Vanessa’s death came fast and furious within a span of just two weeks of her terminal diagnosis.

Without the ability to correspond with her in the days leading up to her death (due to her illness becoming so severe it rendered her 99% incapacitated), I literally stopped, dropped, and rolled on the floor upon receiving this news. I felt as if I was lit on fire, with the pain from this communication leaving me excruciatingly traumatized and broken.

Not knowing what was happening during these many weeks of radio silence, I was texting her number over and over and over again, not realizing that all of this communication was being read by her husband. He was caring for her in their Vermont farmhouse, assisted by family who flew in from England a few weeks prior to spend whatever little time they had with this very special and beloved daughter, sister-in-law, and cousin.

There are no road maps to trauma. No GPS or Waze apps can get us from point A to B. What I did discover during my three-plus years of work with my incredibly wise, informed, compassionate, insightful, and funny therapist in the trauma work we did each week was that there are alarms in our bodies that go off, signaling that we have to find a safe place to get out of danger, away from the darkness lurking within.

Using a workbook that was beyond helpful, Transforming the Living Legacy of Trauma: A Workbook for Survivors and Therapists, by Janina Fisher, PhD (2021), a huge epiphany for me was connecting the dots of trauma.

I learned that “the living legacy of trauma manifests itself in intense physical, perceptual, and emotional reactions to everyday things—rarely recognizable as past experience. These emotional and physical responses, called ‘implicit memories,’ keep bringing the trauma alive in our bodies and emotions again and again, often many times a day” (Fisher, 13).

Doing weekly homework was an integral part of my journey to wellness, although, as anyone knows, you don’t ever really rid yourself of a lifetime of events, symptoms, and difficulties common to individuals who are traumatized.

Worksheets were incredibly helpful in guiding my work with Vanessa, holding me accountable to “naming” the symptoms and difficulties I recognized in myself. Those include a feeling of emotional overwhelm, loss of interest in most things, numbing, decreased concentration, irritability, depression, few or no memories, shame and worthlessness, nightmares and flashbacks, anxiety and panic attacks, chronic pain and headaches, substance abuse and eating disorders, feeling unreal or out of body, and a loss of sense of “who I am.”

I had to examine how these symptoms helped me to survive. For example, if I suffered from depression, how did that help me get through my PTSD? How did losing interest in things help me? How did not sleeping help? How did using alcohol help me survive? (I unfortunately combined prescription meds with alcohol, putting my life in jeopardy for years).

One of the most important pieces of my trauma work was recognizing just how integral understanding the brain was in experiencing trauma. Certain areas of the brain are specialized in helping us survive danger (van der Kolk, 2014).

“A set of related structures in the limbic system hold our capacity for emotional, sensory, and relational experience, as well as the nonverbal memories connected to traumatic events. The limbic system includes the thalamus (a relay station for sensory information), the hippocampus (an area specialized to process memory), and the amygdala (the brain’s fire alarm and smoke detector). When our senses pick up the signs of imminent danger, that information is automatically transmitted to the thalamus, where, in a matter of nanoseconds, it is evaluated by threat receptors in the amygdala and in the prefrontal cortex to determine if it is a true or false alarm.” (Fisher, 15)

One of the most interesting parts of studying the relational pieces of trauma with the brain is that the prefrontal cortex is designed to hold the “veto power” (Fisher, 15). Depending on how a stimulus is recognized, such as being benign or threatening, I discovered that when I construed a stimulus as threatening (which I did many, many times), my adrenaline stress response prepared my body to fight or flee.

Adrenaline causes our heart rate and respiration to increase, turning off non-essential systems, including the pre-frontal cortex, putting us in survival mode. Pausing to think might put me in danger, simultaneously losing the ability for conscious decision making, acting, and reacting by crying for help and “bear witness to the entirety of the experience” (Fisher, 16). I often found myself freezing in fear, fleeing, fighting, or giving in when there was no way out.

My understanding of triggers and triggering was instrumental to my understanding of my post-traumatic stress, which forced me to look at the behaviors of our forebears—cavemen and cave women. They lived in a very dangerous world, where they were vulnerable to diseases, harsh climates, the challenges of providing food for their tribe, and potential attacks by animal and human predators.

Folks back then had to strike preemptively, something that their environment helped with (using stones, tree branches, etc. as weapons to fight off enemies or craft bows and arrows). Their survival was enhanced by this ability to sense danger and to keep on going, no matter how they felt or what was in their way. They innately had the ability to sense danger before the fact rather than analyze the level of threat once it was in front of them.

Centuries later, human beings still have heightened stress and survival responses. The brain and body have become “biased to cues” indicating potential threat. Cues connected even indirectly to specific traumatic events are called “triggers.”

These triggers have caused me to shake in my boots (or Converse sneakers) simply by smelling certain smells or experiencing certain weather conditions. These strong physical and emotional responses are known as triggering, and I struggled with this for many years before I was lucky enough to find a therapist who really “got it.”

I can literally hear my ex cursing and screaming if I am in somebody’s basement because that is where our fights often took place in our family home years and years ago.

I can start shaking when I drive through my old neighborhood in upstate New York because I start to “see” all of the evidence I found in our family home that confirmed my ex was having an extramarital affair.

Just driving down a street a few miles from our family home, I can reactivate the sensors in the limbic system and amygdala and see a flashing “danger” sign. I then feel that lightning bolt of obsessive anger that I felt when I found pictures, letters, and other paraphernalia confirming that I was “dumb and clueless” when my ex made up stories about where he had been or where he was going.

Vanessa would be extremely upset with me if she was here, knowing that I’m “time traveling” with the writing of this piece, and shaming myself in the process by calling myself names.

Her points are valid, and because of the incredible growth and insight I gained through my work with her, I own both of those things and know that time traveling is incredibly triggering for me, causing me to stir up very upsetting and traumatizing feelings.

As for the self-shaming I have gotten to be very good at, I can recognize (now) that it is extremely counter-intuitive to call myself names or demean myself. All it does is give life to the negative, punitive, cruel, abhorrent words that my ex articulated to make me feel as if “I” was the crazy one in the relationship, and that “I” deserved to suffer from his extra-marital affair because I was a crazy, terrible wife.

To all of that I say, bah, humbug, knowing that I have worked way too hard to travel down that dark and dank road of the past, growing by leaps and bounds through weeks of tears, laughter, more tears, and hard-earned self-actualization and growth from sessions with an amazingly good clinician.

I know that Vanessa always gave me the credit for getting where I am today. I always argued that I never would have arrived at this destination without her patience, expertise, and extraordinary empathy, which I never experienced with the twenty other therapists I had over the years. I tell those closest to me that Vanessa saved my life, and I don’t say that lightly.

What folks who don’t have PTSD need to understand is that it is virtually impossible for anyone who has experienced severe trauma to truly believe that they “deserve” the good and positive things that come from the extremely hard work they put in.

They’re convinced that they are not deserving of those good and positive things, and that being “messed up” will be a lifelong, integral part of them. As such, positive things are for other folks, and change for the good is something that might be attainable but rarely is, due to the falls and flaws that define the lives of those with trauma.

Healing and forgiveness begin to happen the moment when we accept and forgive ourselves—the moment we see that small child who we once were through the eyes of the compassionate adult we have become.

For me, I was convinced that the little girl of yesteryear would never be anything but wounded and broken, despite the pep talks and logical arguments presented by very intelligent, intuitive clinicians. But that was then and this is now.

And if Vanessa is looking down at me (and I’m pretty sure she is), she would imitate Mary Poppins and say, “pish, posh” with a smile on her face, and remind me every time I achieved a new level of insight, understanding, and self-care with a “well done,” putting her right thumb up as an exclamation mark.

Well done, indeed.

About Hilary Wolfson

Hilary Wolfson is a former special education English teacher and writer for The New York Times. She is the parent of three adult children, one of whom has Tourette Syndrome and is developmentally disabled, and is an advocate for families with similar life experiences. When she isn’t reading memoirs and streaming documentaries, Hilary enjoys playing with her grandson, Seamus, and walking her two rescue dogs, Bernie Sanders and Finley Mortimer, both of whom are her emotional support dogs and favorite children with tails.

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