Neuroplasticity 101 for Trauma Survivors

Article in Psych Central online, by Odelya Gertel Kraybill, PhD.

Have you ever known of a successful gymnast who doesn’t work constantly to build and maintain flexibility using a variety of exercises? Neither have I. Like gymnasts, trauma survivors benefit greatly from special exercises to facilitate neuroplasticity. In this post, I want to share one that I’ve developed and use.

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change and adapt to changing environmental stimuli, which it accomplishes by creating new neural connections and growing new neurons (Klorer, 2005; Siegel, 2010). Neuroplasticity is what enables the brain to constantly attempt recovery after brain injury.

When trauma takes place, our automatic survival mechanisms pave a kind of emergency highway in our brain. Our “instinctual brain” responds to a trigger and activates the fight-and-flight mechanism that manages autonomic functions like heart rate and sweat. Our instinctual brain “owns” this highway and assumes broad control of all functions when we are on it.

Emergency highway creation can be a life-saver, enabling us to rapidly fend off or escape mortal danger. But once created, an emergency highway doesn’t go away. It remains paved as a neural pathway with a variety of quick access entry ramps.

Our instinctual brain can be easily triggered to re-enter it by any signals, perceived or real, from our senses that remind us of the original threat. These could be: a smell, a taste, a sound, a sight, a body motion or sensation, anything that we associate with the old trauma.

When this happens, we are instantly on an entry ramp to the emergency highway, where the instinctual brain rules. Even if there is no danger at hand, our sensory associations with a past time of danger put the instinctual brain back in charge, for a few seconds at least, and possibly longer, depending on where we are on the trauma integration, or healing, path.

If we enter fully onto the emergency highway, we go into “first alert mode” and then follow a predictable sequence of responses, the next phase usually being withdrawal.

Threat of danger is for many people an inescapable part of existence, so we don’t want to dismantle our emergency highway creation system. But emergency mode is an extravagant consumer of energy and a wicked disruptor of normal life. We don’t want to “hit the highway” unless we truly need to. Trauma survivors’ vulnerability to constant takeover by the instinctual brain, triggered by the slightest association with past trauma, can devastate the routines of life.

Neuroplasticity exercises facilitate movement beyond the emergency highway network by assisting us to ‘build bridges’ over it, create early off-ramps for exit when we are on it and develop alternate, more sustainable avenues of response. The more we practice, the less vulnerable we become to unwanted triggering of our sensory system and the faster we can move through the stages of recovery when we have been triggered.

Researchers have studied for some time how to facilitate and enhance neuroplasticity. A few activities have been demonstrated to be effective. Chief among them are prayer, meditation and yoga and expressive arts (listening to and playing music, drawing, movement and drama and so forth). It is critical to understand why so few activities are effective, for if we do not, we can waste a lot of time, effort, money and hope in strategies that seem like they ought to help but actually don’t.

I use a lizard metaphor in describing the instinctual brain. Like a lizard, the instinctual brain is quick, flighty and unsophisticated in ability to assess or communicate. The character in charge of the emergency highway is unresponsive to reason, analysis or verbal engagement!

Activities found to be effective in expanding neuroplasticity engage the instinctual brain at the pre-cognitive level at which it functions. The goal is not to bring the instinctual brain to higher functioning – its job is not higher functioning, but only to manage basic lower level systems of survival.

So, in treatment we aim to induce the instinctual brain to relax its command of crisis management and allow other brain functions to re-engage, such as good judgment, ability to separate past from present experience, moral judgment and meaning making in regards to traumatic experiences.