Why your brain creates trauma | Lisa Feldman Barrett

We possess numerous terms to describe unpleasant experiences:

We may label it as a negative mood,
we may refer to it as stress,
we may characterize it as trauma.

These words share a common characteristic,
and that is, they all pertain to events that demand significant metabolic resources.

Trauma is an experience that follows the same construction process as any other experience, and acknowledging this fact does not undermine its significance. Instead, it highlights predictions’ profound influence on everyday life’s dynamics.

When an adverse experience becomes traumatic, the brain assigns significant weight to that particular experience in its future predictions. From a metabolic perspective, anticipating and addressing potential challenges is more advantageous than simply reacting to them.

The traumatic event is repeatedly relived, reinforcing the neural connections associated with it and further solidifying the likelihood of similar predictions in the future.

And the purpose behind this brain behavior is to evade potential threats.

The brain constructs a representation of the world as a menacing environment, persistently priming the body to confront those perceived threats repeatedly.

Consequently, the brain continues generating these anticipations, persistently shaping its model of the world without incorporating updates.

The notion that trauma resides within your body or that your body carries the imprints of trauma stems from the belief in the existence of an instinctual aspect of the brain, which in turn results in adversities, trauma leaving physical marks, and the enduring repercussions of trauma manifesting in the body.

Subsequently, treatments are devised to eliminate these imprints from the body.

Many of the treatments I’m familiar with have compelling evidence of being effective. However, their effectiveness is hindered by the influence of our primal instincts or the lingering effects of trauma that manifest in our bodies. It’s important to understand that our perception and experience of our bodies are constructed and processed in our brains.

True healing doesn’t lie in fixing our physical bodies; instead, it requires changing our brain’s predictive patterns, which shape how we perceive our bodies and interact with the world. Breaking free from this cycle is crucial.

You are not bound by predictions rooted in trauma. There are various methods available to facilitate positive change. Dominant treatments for trauma, such as yoga, psychedelics, and occasionally, dance therapy or other embodied practices like theater, are all effective means of reshaping your predictions.

Part of what you’re doing is creating new experiences for yourself to enhance and expand your brain’s capacity to predict future events in different ways.

The brain is a scientist, a scientist with a hypothesis – which is essentially a set of predictions. These predictions serve as beliefs or guesses about upcoming sensations and their causes. This is where emotions originate.

You can test and evaluate which hypothesis is correct, like a diligent scientist. This becomes particularly crucial during the recovery process from trauma, as the heightened arousal you might experience could be related to uncertainty about which prediction is accurate. The only way to resolve this uncertainty is by gathering more information.

Some individuals may be worried that I’m suggesting trauma exists solely in the mind, and indeed, trauma does exist in the mind. However, it’s essential to recognize that everything we experience, whether witnessing a breathtaking sunset, feeling a warm embrace, or savoring a delightful drink, is ultimately processed in our minds.

Recovering from trauma is possible. It doesn’t mean that traumatic memories won’t resurface at times in the future, but they don’t have to dominate your brain’s predictions. The ability to exert some control over how you manage that content is truly a gift.

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