Trauma...what’s behind behavior and what we can do about it

When we think about trauma, we instantly think of the “Big T” traumas that we are familiar with from Law & Order and our other favorite television shows.  While these “Big T”s can have huge impacts, what we also know to be true is that the “Little T” traumas that are much more common can have equal impacts on brain functioning.  Let’s break it down…

Kaiser Permanente conducted a study between 1995 and 1997 of individuals completing a physical examination, attempting to correlate risk factors for future physical health issues.  What they found was Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) were highly correlated with future physical health and mental health issues.  These ACEs could be “Big T”s (physical abuse, sexual abuse) or could be “Little T”s (not feeling special within one’s household, family member going to prison, parental divorce or separation, mental health issue of a family member).  What we know to be true is that 20% of the general population has experienced three or more ACEs in childhood.

Now for the nerd stuff.  When faced with these traumas, both adults and children exist in the “fight, flight, freeze” center of the brain known as the limbic system. This is the system of the brain that we share with our prehistoric ancestors.  This center is instinctual and more equipped to fight off a mastodon than to take a math test or to interact appropriately at a social outing. For individuals who have repeatedly encountered these traumas, whether big or small, their brains begin to find comfort in that limbic system and “camp out” here, in what I’ll call our “hot brain” system.  While effective in running from danger, this area of our brain is not very adaptive when we need to function at work or want to get close to a significant other.  On the contrary, the limbic system functions make us appear very socially inept (at best) and defiant or unpredictable (more consistently).

For children and adolescents operating in a hot system, they can be very difficult to be around. They may snap in anger for no reason, have difficulties interacting with peers and adults, or have academic difficulties.  Sometimes these behaviors can exist on the same continuum as normal adolescent behaviors, as more extreme manifestations of “normal”.  As a result they can be missed as symptoms of a trauma response. Adolescents also may retreat to themselves and refuse to let you in, even if they know cognitively that you are trying to help.  Why? Well, what we know about the limbic system is that it also is not the area of the brain that has language.  As a result, asking them to “talk about it” may not be a developmentally achievable thing for them to do.

So what can we do?

  • Identify and know the signs of the “hot brain” by understanding that obnoxious and defiant behaviors can be developmentally appropriate for a trauma survivor. 
  • Let them know that you are understanding that they are having a hard time.
  • Calm their environment so they can feel safe and supported. Trauma cannot heal in an environment that still feels unsafe.
  • Support coping skills that cool the brain. Drawing, music, yoga, and exercise can all be calming to the mind and body.
  • Link with a therapist who is trained to handle trauma.  Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) are greats option for quickly alleviating symptoms and provide relief.

You are taking the first step by researching and learning more! Feel free to contact me with questions at