When Trauma Takes Over Your Sense of Self:

Neuroscience research tells us it’s in your brain

Treatments for trauma are rapidly advancing. And we’re learning so much from neuroscience about what happens to the brain in the aftermath of trauma, which can better inform how to help people heal.

Ruth Lanius is doing important and exciting work in this area. Some of her new research has looked at what happens to our sense of self in the aftermath of trauma. 

When our mind is in a resting state, when we get quiet, our default mode network (DMN) is activated. The DMN is associated with self reflection, introspection, and self awareness.

In the aftermath of trauma, the periaqueductal gray (PAG) (an interface between the forebrain and the lower brainstem that plays a major role in integrated behavioral responses to internal and external stressors), drives the DMN. So this means that the autonomic nervous system, and raw emotional states, end up driving our sense of self.

Another way to put this is that our trauma reactions, and our sense of self become connected. 

This is how trauma becomes central to survivors’ identity—Those feelings of “I’m bad”, “I’m worthless”, “I am my trauma”, “I have no sense of who I am”, are common experiences among trauma survivors. So if you are someone who experienced trauma and feels this way, it’s important to know that this is a function of what’s happening in your brain as a result of your trauma.

And you’re not alone.

What does this all of this mean in terms of healing? 

The research suggests that healing from trauma, or restoring a healthy sense of self, includes uncoupling the PAG from the DMN, or separating our trauma reactions from our sense of self. And there are many modalities that can help with this uncoupling. Some of these include Internal Family Systems (IFS), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT). Additionally, new research on therapies combined with psychedelics, such as Ketamine Assisted Psychotherapy, which is currently available, and MDMA Assisted Therapy, which is in phase 3 clinical trials, have demonstrated great potential for this uncoupling. 

I firmly believe, as we’re seeing the evidence for this, that you do not have to learn to live with trauma. 

It is fully possible to reclaim your mind, heal from trauma, and live from your fullest, most expansive, self.