On The Exhale: Trauma and the Brain

Posted on: March 17th, 2017 by Roundabout

Trauma is the Greek word for “wound.” In ancient time it referred to a physical wound, but today trauma is also understood as an emotional wound.

Experiencing a traumatic event changes the chemistry of our body and brain. These changes can remain long after the event has ended.

There are two types of traumatic events. In an acute traumatic event, someone experiences a serious injury or the injury or death of another person, or the threat of death or serious injury. Violations of personal physical integrity, like rape or sexual assault, are also acute traumatic events. Chronic traumatic situations happen repeatedly over longer periods of time and include being exposed to domestic violence, living through a war, and some bullying.

The human brain is the most complex system known. It has three main parts.

  • The brainstem, the most primitive part of the brain, controls the basics like breathing, eating, sleeping, and survival instincts.
  • The limbic or midbrain processes emotions and controls how we perceive the world around us. The amygdala, which controls our sense of danger and safety and triggers the release of stress hormones, is part of the limbic brain.
  • The cortex, the frontal and outer parts of our brain, is sometimes called the rational or cognitive brain. It controls language, empathy, learning, organization, and inhibition of inappropriate behaviors.

Fight of flight.

During a traumatic event, the limbic brain takes in sensory information from the body and sends it in two directions, to both the amygdala and to the frontal lobes of the cortex. The amygdala receives the information sooner and makes a snap judgement as to whether or not a situation is dangerous. In a potentially dangerous situation, the amygdala tells the hypothalamus and brainstem to secrete stress hormones. These hormones prepare the body for fight or flight: bronchial tubes and pupils dilate, digestion slows, muscles contract, heart and respiration rates increase. If fight or flight is impossible, the brainstem will trigger a freeze or collapse response. Processes not necessary for survival shut down. The cortex, the thinking brain, is disconnected from the limbic brain and essentially turned off.

Because of this disconnect, the human brain struggles to consolidate memories and emotions into a coherent narrative after a traumatic situation, which is necessary for working through a trauma. The areas of the brain responsible for understanding time and place are bypassed, explaining the woman in On the Exhale’s inability to process what happened in her son’s classroom. Trauma is remembered as disconnected images and sensations.

In some cases individuals experience flashbacks of the trauma, or dissociate completely, unable to connect with either their emotions or their everyday life. The woman in On the Exhale seeks the rush of firing the gun, suggesting that she may be having a dissociating response.

Marin Ireland in ON THE EXHALE. Photo by Joan Marcus.

After trauma, the amygdala, which warns of danger, can go into overdrive and trigger release of stress hormones in non-threatening situations. This can cause emotional and psychological problems, as well as physical symptoms like high blood pressure and digestive issues. In recent years, scientists have shown that trauma symptoms lessen if treatment includes a somatic, or body-based, component. Movement and breathing exercises like yoga, or group rhythm activities like dance or choral singing, send information from the body back to brain, signaling safety and calm. Over time, these practices can help create new patterns and physical responses in individuals who have experienced trauma.



On the Exhale is now playing at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.

Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, On the Exhale, Roundabout Underground, Upstage

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