When a child feels frightened, overwhelmed and scared for their life, the right hemisphere amygdala is activated. Information about danger is received via the senses (sight, sound, taste, touch, smell and intuition). The amygdala stores the memory and activates the fear response through the hypothalamus, via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.
This in turn activates a hormonal response to the autonomic nervous system to carry messages to different parts of the body to prepare for action to either fight, run away, or, as in the ultimate defence, freeze in reaction to the perceived danger. To ensure danger is recognised immediately, the amygdala reacts faster than other parts of the brain and before we can “think” about the situation through our neo-mammalian brain. (Levine, 1997)
Our brain ‘remembers’ anything it considers important. At each ‘life threatening’ occasion it holds onto trauma memory in the right brain amygdala as an implicit (subconscious) memory. This is how a mouse ‘remembers’ a cat is dangerous and how a deer ‘remembers’ a lion is dangerous. When the amygdala is activated, the fight/flight/freeze response can seem exaggerated as there is no activity in the ‘thinking’ cortex.
This can help us understand why survivors of trauma have low attention spans as the brain is unable to ‘think’ when the alarm has been ‘triggered’ (Levine, 1997). It is this warning system which becomes over activated in survivors of trauma and causes many of their behavioral problems.
Prolonged and repeated activation of this warning system, can cause exhaustion of the system and its associated structures and each time activation occurs and remains unresolved, a new ‘set point’ is created (Levine, 1997). Over time, the body becomes unable to function in its original state as it has had to learn to work around the trapped energy created by previous, unresolved trauma. For a body to endure decades of trauma, i.e. child abuse, it ‘learns’ to operate from an increasingly heightened state and becomes ‘comfortable’ with these excessive levels of stress hormones. This can make it more difficult when healing to ‘come down’ again and it may need a slow, patient approach to change it. What is seen as ‘self-sabotage’ can often be the brain unconsciously trying to create sources of stress hormone activation, effectively restoring the brain to the level of anxiety it feels ‘comfortable’ with.