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Fear, Stress, and Trauma—How They Impact Our Lives and Relationships

What are they, how do they show up in our lives, and how to rewire our brains for healthier living

Kristin continues to educate on the brain and body connection to mental health, focusing on the fear/stress responses in the body. This includes discussion on the differences between fear, stress, trauma, shame, and anxiety and the tools to help rewire your brain and feel in control of your mind and body again. Kristin provides basic, understandable explanations of the limbic system, including the roles of the autonomic nervous system, the amygdala, the hypothalamus, pituitary, and other important mechanisms that effect our fear and stress states. She discusses how trauma wires into your brain and lists evidence-based tools to unwire it. Kristin shares information from several experts in the field including information shared by Dr. Andrew Huberman, a scientist from Stanford University. Understanding how your brain and body respond to your environment can greatly impact your relationships and quality of life. These tools are helpful for betrayed partners, people struggling in their life and relationships, recovering addicts, and trauma survivors.


The neurobiology of fear, stress, and trauma is a complex and multi-faceted topic that requires a comprehensive understanding of the systems and processes involved in these emotional experiences. It is a common mistake to assume that individuals show up as one whole person, functioning cohesively towards a common goal, when in reality, there are various systems running in the backdrop of our brains. Fear, stress, and trauma are some of the biggest systems that can affect our behavior and emotional responses, and it is important to understand how they function to develop a greater level of self-awareness and empower ourselves.


The prefrontal cortex and parietal lobe are two significant systems that determine our consciousness, conscientiousness, and overall sense of self. Fear and stress response systems are our primitive, survival brain systems that are essential for our survival. Trauma and shame are two significant systems that shape how we view ourselves and others, and how we interact with the world around us. While fear, stress, anxiety, trauma, and shame may manifest physiologically similar to a fear response, it is important to note that they are not necessarily correlated with one another.


Fear is a neurobiological experience that leads to an uncomfortable emotion and a change in body, including an increase in heart rate and shortness of breath, alongside cognitive responses such as thoughts and memories. Fear is a response to stimuli and is a necessary component of our survival system. Fear responses can trigger stress responses, which can be helpful for coping with certain situations. However, stress, anxiety, and shame can manifest independently of fear.


Trauma is a long-term response to a fearful event that is recorded in our nervous system in a way that it can resurface or be triggered when a threat is no longer present. Trauma often leads to a loss of control, context, connection, and choice, which can overwhelm our system, leading to a loss of power and choice. Acute and complex trauma can affect the autonomic arousal system, which is partly responsible for our survival and other involuntary systems such as heart rate, breathing, some sexual responses, digestion, and immunity.


The autonomic arousal system is composed of two branches, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for up-regulating our system, increasing alertness and ramping up vigilance, while the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for down-regulating and calming our system, helping us cope with stress and panic.

The hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenaline and epinephrine are stress hormones that help us wake up and prepare us for action. The HPA access can be brief, such as in an almost car accident, or it can become a more prolonged and lasting component. Trauma may result from a lack of support, a safe place to turn to, or validation and empowerment.


The amygdala is the threat reflex system that is responsible for a quickening of our heart rate, intense focus, and accessing energy stores for movement. The amygdala reflex system can integrate threats or information from various senses such as sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. The amygdala complex can be triggered by memories, a reflex, or other general information that may not necessarily pose a real threat. Understanding the amygdala reflex system and how to unwire it is essential for managing fear and trauma responses.


The prefrontal cortex is another significant player in the fear, stress, and trauma response. It can control or suppress a reflex and has the power to trump or replace the wiring from trauma, fear, and stress. I


Understanding the Amygdala Reflex System and How to UNWIRE IT


The amygdala reflex system is responsible for integrating threats or information from our senses and determining whether to initiate the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response. The amygdala also releases organic opiates and activates adrenaline and epinephrine to create arousal. Importantly, the amygdala can be triggered by memories or general information, not just actual threats, leading to reflexive responses.

However, the prefrontal cortex can control or suppress a reflex, allowing for regulation of fear, stress, and trauma responses. The prefrontal cortex provides a narrative that overrides the reflex and gives a new story or meaning to the experience. By attaching a narrative to what is happening, negotiating what the threat means and how to respond to it, we can change our response to fear, stress, and trauma.


To work through fear, stress, and trauma, different schools of thought suggest various tools. Behavioral therapy, for example, involves exposure to fear or recounting a traumatic event, which may initially be overwhelming but can ultimately diminish the fear response. It is essential to relearn a new narrative, new association, and new framework, which can block future reflex triggers. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is another helpful tool. EMDR can be used to explore negative thoughts, shame, and bodily sensations associated with a traumatic event and replace them with a positive narrative.


In summary, understanding the amygdala reflex system and the prefrontal cortex's role in regulating fear, stress, and trauma responses is crucial in rewiring our brains. By attaching a new narrative and negotiating the meaning of a threat, we can reframe memories and gain perspective. Behavioral therapy and EMDR can also be helpful tools to undo or alleviate fear, trauma, and stress responses. Ultimately, with neuroplasticity, we can rewire our brains to change our responses to fear, stress, and trauma.


Its important to note the various tools one can use to override the amygdala reflex. This can be done by providing a new story or narrative that reinterprets the fear-invoking experience as something other than a threat. Healing from trauma requires attaching a narrative to what's happening, negotiating what the threat means, and deciding how to best respond to it. This process takes time, blood, and oxygen, and is done with the prefrontal cortex being turned on. While fear is necessary to keep us alive, it doesn't have to control us, and turning on the prefrontal cortex can help us work through fear, stress, and trauma.


There are various schools of thought on how to best treat fear, stress, anxiety, and trauma. These include but are not limited to using psychotropic medication (an SSRI), behavioral therapy (exposure therapy), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy, Brainspotting, and Psychedelic Assisted Therapies.


Kristin also discusses the neurobiological benefits to breathing exercises and group work to manage stress, trauma, and shame.




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