Trauma and the Brain

“The brain is the most complex organ in the body, and it affects everything we feel and do, not just what we think.”
Janina Fisher, ‘Transforming the Living Legacy of Trauma’

Every day, throughout the day, our brains are active, retrieving, connecting, coordinating with different parts of our body.  And how often are we thinking about this extraordinary activity?  I would say rarely, if ever, unless, I suppose, you’re a neuroscientist or neurologist. But when we lose our keys, for example, one part of the brain visualizes where we saw them last, other parts of the brain retrieve past information, compare data, plan, and problem solve.


Trauma affects the brain.


Janina Fisher explains, “both single traumatic events and enduring traumatic conditions affect the developing brains of children. Because danger causes overstimulation of the reptilian and mammalian brains and also shuts down the prefrontal cortex, certain mental processes, such as learning, are often more difficult for traumatized individuals.”

Ahhh.  This explains the difficulty trauma survivors can have learning, why ADHD, impulsivity, and reactivity, are often associated with trauma. Maybe this helps you understand why you must read things over and over and over again to remember them.

Trauma expresses itself in the present day, when an individual suddenly startles, feels afraid, feels ashamed, pulls back, or gets angry, for example.

To help explain trauma, the triune brain is typically used, even though it is out of date. As the name suggests, this model divides the brain into three parts:

  • Frontal Lobes
    The Thinking Brain
    Responsible for reasoning, problem solving, verbal expression, memory for events and facts.
  • When triggered, frontal lobes shut down and we are overwhelmed by feelings and impulses.
  • Limbic System
    The Mammalian Brain
    Responsible for non-verbal, emotional and relational experiences, feelings, “gut” memories, traumatic memory.
  • When triggered, the amygdala sounds alarm bells, as if we’re in danger RIGHT NOW.
  • Brainstem
    The Reptilian Brain
    Responsible for instinctive responses, reflexes, heart rate, breathing, digestion.
  • When triggered, heart rate increases, we stop breathing or hyperventilate, muscles tense, either speed up or shut down

As you can see above, each brain area stores memory in a different way and form.

  • Thinking Brain
    Remembers the story of what happened, but without much emotion
  • Sensory System
  • Spontaneously sees images or hears the sounds connected to traumatic event
  • Remember how something felt emotionally.
  • Bodies remember impulses/movements/physical sensations (tightening, trembling, sinking feelings, fluttering, quivering)

So, trauma shows up in the present, with our distressing feelings, negative thoughts, and/or physical reactions. Trauma is not what happened to us, but the symptoms that currently show up in our lives.

“You might not be a ‘scaredy-cat’ – you might just be experiencing a lot of fear memories. You may not be an ‘angry person,’ but you might have feeling memories of anger that get triggered by unfairness or rejection.”
Janina Fisher, ‘Transforming the Living Legacy of Trauma’

I think this perspective that Janina shares is so destigmatizing.

Trauma survivors aren’t crazy. They are just getting triggered, sending their Thinking Brain offline, and Sensory System acting from the traumatic past. Our bodies, our senses, are remembering the threat and cannot distinguish that the threat is not now. That’s what our prefrontal cortex is for, to distinguish past from present, but when we are triggered, it get’s knocked off-line.

Work in therapy includes keeping track of and bringing curiosity to our triggers. As Janina Fisher explains:

“Look for very subtle cues that might have triggered what you are feeling. For example, disappointment can be a very huge trigger for trauma survivors, as can being told ‘No!’ or not being understood, having to wait, being ignored or being noticed, or not being believed or taken seriously. Many triggers are paradoxical. Being alone might be a trigger, but being with other people might be also. Change, whether good or bad, is often a trigger, especially if unexpected.”

The work of therapy also includes working to separate out what is a here-and-now emotional reaction and what is a feeling or body memory.

I have trained with Janina Fisher, as well as other trauma professionals, and am honored to help people live more fully in the present.

You don’t need to deal with these difficulties on your own.

Please, reach out for help.

I can be reached by phone at 301-279-7779, by email at or by using the form below.




Keywords:  frontal lobes, limbic system, brain stem, thinking brain, mammalian brain, reptilian brain, body memory, emotional memory, tightening, trembling, sinking feeling, traumatic events, traumatic conditions, prefrontal cortex, triggers, disappointment, ignored, not understood, not taken seriously, being noticed, brain

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I'm always happy to hear from people.

If you have any questions, need more information, or would like to make an appointment, you can call me at 301-279-7779, email me at, or use the form below.

If you are searching for a “therapist near me,” that could be me.  I see people via teletherapy, so I am a therapist near you! 🙂 I provide services to people in Maryland, Virginia, and DC.

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Licensed Clinical Social Worker • Over 15 years of experience • Certified Emotionally Focused Couple Therapist and Supervisor • Member of The Greater Washington Society of Clinical Social Work • Member of the International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy • Member of Clinical Social Work Association • Member of National Association of Social Workers

Serving Washington DC, Maryland and Northern Virginia through teletherapy, including Georgetown, Tenleytown, AU Park, Downtown, Rockville, Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Kensington, Gaithersburg, Germantown, Potomac, Silver Spring, Arlington, Fairfax, Alexandria, Leesburg, Clarendon, Springfield, Great Falls, Annandale, McLean, Burke, Vienna, Tysons, Reston, Ashburn.

Phone:  301-279-7779

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