Our bodies and brains are made to process new information and experiences every day without our even being aware of it. Here’s the exception — when we are jolted by an overwhelming event like a car accident or repeatedly distressed from neglect or abuse, our natural coping mechanism shuts down. As a result, these traumatic experiences remain frozen in the limbic system of our brains — in their raw, emotional form, rather than in the verbal, “story” mode of the cortex.
In other words, the limbic system holds the unprocessed traumatic memories in an isolated network disconnected from the cortex where we use language to house memories. As a result, even when the memory is forgotten, emotions and sensations from a prior traumatic experience may be triggered when some element in our environment seems similar to elements of the traumatic event. Without understanding why, we may re-experience painful feelings like fear, panic, anger or anguish.
The goal of effective trauma therapy is first to establish a strong therapeutic alliance, then to make sure self-calming resources are in place. The therapist can then assist you in forming connections between the brain’s memory networks, putting words to a traumatic experience, thus enabling you to process past trauma and move forward a little more freely in your life.