The Trauma Loop

Phil Bradfield

I hope everyone has had a good start, getting back to school and helping the children re-enter a routine.  For the first time in nine years, Sarah and I have quiet at home, with all three of our kids going to the same school.

In keeping with our monthly newsletter topic of being trauma informed, let’s focus on what is known in the field of mental health as the trauma loop.

The trauma loop is simply a brain state that has created a pathway in the nervous system. As this pathway is used over and over again it becomes stronger. For example, a person may respond to stress with rage, especially when reality feels overwhelming to them. Essentially a trauma loop occurs in response to repeated exposure to traumatic and adverse experiences. During each traumatic event, neurochemicals flood the brain.

Over time the brain becomes accustomed to functioning in a flooded state and living in toxic stress. Unfortunately all that toxicity gets stuck, and the logic part of the brain is unable to process the trauma. Often trauma survivors lose the ability to make meaning of or find purpose in what has happened to them. That loss is directly linked to the logic portion of the brain that fails to process the trauma, and therefore the brain makes a pathway for it.

The more the trauma loop pathway is used, the stronger the path becomes, and the more it is relied upon. Think of it like blazing a trail in the woods. The first time you take the path it’s not easily done. But the more you keep going back down that trail, the more accessible and smooth it becomes to walk down.

The brain can be a little bit lazy; it always seeks the path of least resistance. Using our earlier example, if my neuropathway for rage in response to stress is frequently used, it is easier for me to rage when I am triggered than it is to have good behavior and remain calm. It works the same way as it would if you had to take a short cut through the woods. Would you rather use the trail that was already made or go hacking through the brush to the other side?

If we are to be trauma informed and focused, we’ll need a continued commitment to learning about and being sensitive to trauma. One way to remain committed to being sensitive to trauma is working to recognize triggers — being willing to sit with someone, hear their story and know them when they are triggered.

Trauma survivors can be triggered by almost anything depending on their past traumatic experiences, and they have to work to build awareness as to what their triggers are. Most kids do not know their triggers.  A person might be triggered by something they see, hear or even smell; the same experience might trigger one trauma survivor, but not another. Our job is not to help the children in our care to discover every trigger they have, but to be sensitive enough know what is happening for them when they are triggered.

When someone’s trauma is triggered, their brain will do one of two things: respond or react. The trauma survivor who has processed and healed from their wounds will be able to respond, because they know they are safe and they have learned to steward their relationships toward connection. But those who have not yet processed their trauma or healed will react, and their behaviors show it.

My prayer is that we will have the grace and patience to be sensitive to our kids who are from hard places and be able to know what is happening when they are triggered.  I hope we will take the time to deal with our own vicarious trauma, too, so we can respond to them in love and empathy.