Brain States of Unresolved Trauma

Foggy gray blurry brain with drops on a window as a wiper cleans the confusion

A leading expert in the science of trauma, Dr. Bruce Perry, provides us with valuable and practical information about the nature of trauma that leads to clarity and understanding about what otherwise can be puzzling behaviors.

In his groundbreaking book, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog Dr. Perry shares important information about the way the brain responds if a child or adult is triggered by a traumatic memory and experiences profound fear or terror as a result. He shares that in any given moment we all are in a particular brain state, where one part of the brain is primarily engaged and running the show, determining how a person is thinking, feeling or responding to surrounding stimuli. 

Image Credit: Dr. Bruce Perry, MD, PhD.

When we are calm or in an alert/aroused state, our cortex, the thinking part of the brain, is in charge.  Think about how often we get brilliant ideas while in a shower or tub. In this state we can think abstractly and creatively and also can think about our future.

When we are alarmed, we shift to functioning from the limbic or emotional area of the brain.

If our brain moves to a fear state, when we believe there is imminent danger, our brain shifts down another level and functions primarily out of the midbrain where we are more reactive than responsive. We can only think in terms of the next few minutes or seconds.

When we are terrified by something, we shift all the way down to our brainstem, which is the lowest part of our brain. At that point we are in a reflexive place, not really thinking, feeling, or responding but rather reacting reflexively.

The person with unresolved trauma is often operating in lower brain states most of the time. When triggered, they go even lower than someone who does not have unresolved trauma. This is why people with unresolved trauma often can’t consider anything in the future because they are so most likely in a lower brain state. Asking them to appreciate consequences for later in the day or in their life is an impossible task for them.

Knowing this can help caring, trauma-informed adults consider what the brain state of a child might be and then have reasonable expectations with regard to how the child perceives time. Noticing that a child might be alarmed, fearful or terrified can help adults shift their expectations and gently invite a child to do the kinds of things that help him or her move to a higher brain state. Some helpful tips for a triggered child might be a cold glass of water to drink, an opportunity to rock or run around to release some of the traumatic energy, to sit with a beloved pet or just take some deep, take calming breaths and to not talk about what needs to happen in the next few hours, days or in the future.

At the same time, when children are able to think about the future, parents and caregivers can be confident that that child is most likely functioning from a higher level of the brain. They may even have a whole different sense of time. This can be a sign that a child may be working through some of his or her traumatic issues to becoming more able to function in a higher brain state.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Can you recall a time when you clearly were in your cortex, able to think about your future, able to be creative, able to plan? Here you are operating from your cortex.
  2. If you interact with a child with unresolved trauma, how might this information change some of the expectations you will have when you know that your child is in a lower brain state?
  3. Think about the ways you might observe the brain state of a child (or yourself) and how you can have fair and realistic expectations that are based on the brain state of that child.