The reptilian brain exists within all of us, not only in those with past trauma. Trauma seems to keep this area of the brain alert, extra sensitive, unable to rest. The image below explains many areas of the brain, including the reptilian inner brain.
(image from http://www.traumarecoveryinternational.com/the-reptilian-brain—where-ptd-lives.html)
The brain is divided into 3 main areas, reptilian, limbic, and neocortex. The chart below is from http://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/d/d_05/d_05_cr/d_05_cr_her/d_05_cr_her.html
|The reptilian brain, the oldest of the three, controls the body’s vital functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature and balance. Our reptilian brain includes the main structures found in a reptile’s brain: the brainstem and the cerebellum. The reptilian brain is reliable but tends to be somewhat rigid and compulsive.
||The limbic brain emerged in the first mammals. It can record memories of behaviours that produced agreeable and disagreeable experiences, so it is responsible for what are called emotions in human beings. The main structures of the limbic brain are the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the hypothalamus. The limbic brain is the seat of the value judgments that we make, often unconsciously, that exert such a strong influence on our behaviour.
||The neocortex first assumed importance in primates and culminated in the human brain with its two large cerebral hemispheres that play such a dominant role. These hemispheres have been responsible for the development of human language, abstract thought, imagination, and consciousness. The neocortex is flexible and has almost infinitelearning abilities. The neocortex is also what has enabled humancultures to develop.
The reason I was thinking about the parts of the brain, and the reptilian part specifically, is because I wanted to understand more about what happens to me during my response to hide (or freeze), when the flight part of fight or flight is activated. This is a powerful feeling, stronger than butterflies in your stomach or stage fright or social anxiety. I was talking to hubby, and he said something that after all these years with me I could not believe he still misunderstood, and so I need to clear this up here as well.
PTSD – and the actions within flight or fight – are not my choice. I do not choose to run away. I have to run away. No thought has happened. I have run before I know I have run.
Before the running, when anxiety and fear is lower, when the danger seems manageable, yes, I can choose whether to attend an event or not. But once certain triggers are activated, it is an automatic process, my brain has decided for me that the situation is far too dangerous and tells me to hide – NOW. It does this by turning off the neocortex, and possibly even turning off the limbic brain too to get me moving. It’s why you don’t cry until later, gets in the way of fighting or running.
So why do we have this part of our brain that allows us to act without thinking? Well to save our lives. If we had to debate whether an oncoming car was moving fast enough to kill us, or if that intruder has a gun, or if that bear saw us, well we would already be dead. We need our automatic reactions to pump the adrenaline, to get our heart and muscles going, to move us out of harms way without standing there thinking about it.
I also suffer from the freeze response. When fight or flight does not seem a good option, our reptilian brain freezes us. It is like playing dead while wishing you were dead. Many child abuse victims know this response, they could not fight back or get away, so instead they experience system shut down. I did this so many times as a child. I still do now for certain triggers. For years I would lay there frozen, unable to speak, while hubby had his hands on me, thinking I am enjoying his touches. He was devastated and even angry when I finally told him. He still doesn’t understand that being frozen was NOT my CHOICE. That inside my head I am screaming and crying, but outwardly unable to do or show any thing.
Sometimes when I retreat to my room, I am not being rude, I am not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings, I am not choosing to ignore people, my brain thought I was in danger and believe me, there is no arguing with your reptilian brain because it nicely shuts off your thinking portions for a while, as part of the safety feature. Once the adrenaline slows and my brain can send out the ‘all clear’ call, then I can start to reason through what happened and make choices about coming out of hiding or not.
I am learning the early alert signals, when fear and anxiety are rising, I can try and breathe and ground to keep the reptilian brain from taking over. Sometimes I can, and sometimes I can’t. Although I know more about it now, I am also more sensitive now, like I have mental trip wires everywhere that I don’t even about – a side effect of my current ongoing therapy stirring up symptoms.
I made a connection one evening to this idea of the animal brain. Before a storm, my dog started pacing and looking anxious, coming to me for support for her fear. I know not to comfort her with affection, but that she needs a strong, calm leader in those moments. Someone to show her that she will be safe with me. I don’t pet her or talk to her. I walk around with her, distract her, get her to lay quietly, massage her, call her out if she tries to hide. I don’t let her fear overtake her. I realized I was grounding her and not letting her reptilian brain take over. It really made me start thinking.
Because when I am afraid, I act just like a frightened animal, and also like her I am unable to communicate exactly what is wrong. I also need a strong, calm leader. I look to those around me to provide safety and comfort, and not finding that, I need to be my own leader. I tried explaining this to hubby. That he instinctively knows a bit more about frightened animals than how to treat me. Would you yell at the dog? Would you let her hide, scared, shaking and alone, for hours or days? Would you tell the dog how frustrated you are that she won’t let you hug her when she is frightened? Would you blame the dog or would you comfort and gently try to help her overcome the fears?
I know it must be difficult for hubby, I truly do. That my brain is afraid of him, that he keeps triggering me. But when he leaves me alone after the flight or freeze, it does nothing to disprove those triggers in my brain and instead reinforces those pathways that he cannot be trusted. I keep asking him to let me go for a bit, let me cool down, 20 minutes is usually enough for the nervous system to restore itself. Then come check on me and be strong. Don’t ask me a question – I will say no. Bring me coffee or ice cream, don’t ask if I want any, just bring it to me. (like luring the dog out from under the bed with a treat, right?) Tell me to get a shower or take a walk – don’t ask me. Tell me to ride with you to the duck pond or the grocery store. Make up any reason to draw me out of my hiding place. If you are strong I will listen because I want a leader, someone strong to take care of me. Show me you are not the enemy.
Because in reality – that is all I have ever wanted. someone to properly care for me, to nurture, to understand, to lead with strength, to show me the way when I am scared. I have done this my entire life, when I should not have done this for myself. So maybe I am asking too much of a husband. Maybe it isn’t his job. But maybe he needs to do it anyway, just for a while, just to get me through this. But I know he can’t because he doesn’t. It is what I want, but will never get from him. I try not to be disappointed because I don’t think that is entirely fair to him.
So I will continue to go it alone, relying only on myself to lead the way in these dark moments, and hope that one day the moments will slow down and the triggers will not be daily. No one is saying to hope for triggers to go away completely, only to be less than they are now, easier to manage.
I am getting tired of shaking, hiding and licking my wounds and would like to use all of my brain again. We weren’t meant to function on reptilian brain alone.