My Brain on Trauma


During my tenure as a corporate executive, I experienced a "professional trauma" whereby the top corporate executive blasted me with severe verbal abuse including cursing and threatening my job. I was completely unprepared for how this affected me. In fact, my initial reaction was, “Why am I so upset? Shouldn’t I just ignore it?” Many people at the company had never addressed this ongoing abuse, so why couldn't I just let it slide off my back? After all, I was a master degreed, mental health professional. I know how to write my own narrative, use cognitive behavioral skills to change the way I think about things and I know how to negotiate and think through situations rationally. So, why was I deeply and negatively affected by this event? Here’s why.

After the dust settled and I made the necessary adjustments to get myself on a path of healing, I got introspective about the situation. I was reminded that no matter how far down the road I have come with my own personal healing; I still experience “triggers”. The brain is fundamentally changed in childhood when there is abuse, either physical or mental. I will always be susceptible to certain things that remind me of my abuse. Let me explain.

In an article from the NY Times about abuse and the way it changes one’s brain, they report that for the first time, there is direct evidence that the brain is changed by abuse. “In a study of people who committed suicide published in the journal of Nature Neuroscience, researchers in Montreal report that people who were abused or neglected as children showed genetic alterations that likely made them more biologically sensitive to stress” (NY Times. After Abuse, Changes in the Brain. 2009). Even though one of the interests in my practice is trauma and abuse, I somehow forgot that I am on the same road as my clients. I need to be sensitive to the fact that without my own practice of mindfulness, I too will end up once again on my therapist's couch.

The article goes on to say, “the findings help clarify the biology behind the wounds of a difficult childhood and hint at what constitutes resilience in those able to shake off such wounds.” (NY Times. After Abuse, Changes in the Brain. 2009). While all of us that have experienced neglect or abuse are survivors and not victims, awareness that our brain will always be sensitive to extreme stress is important to our overall mental health. Having the mindfulness of our own triggers, the tools to use when we have these encounters and a good therapist goes along way in coping with the traumas life continues to throw at us.

If you or a loved one is suffering from the effects of trauma or abuse, I invite you to come see me. I understand how you feel.

References: NY Times. 2009. After Abuse, Changes in the Brain.

Renee Trimble, LPC Intern, LCDC

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