If we have suffered severe and chronic childhood trauma, there is a risk that an area of our brain called the limbic system may have incurred developmental damage which severely affects how we feel and behave as adults.
What Is The Limbic System’s Normal Function?
The limbic system is a region of our brain that experiences emotional reactions to information relayed by our five senses : taste, touch, vision, smell and hearing. These emotional reactions are strongly shaped by the memories stored in the limbic system connected to past experiences associated with these senses.
To provide a simple example : if our ancestors heard the roar of a lion behind them, because this sound is associated (from past experience) in the limbic system with danger, they would react with fear and run away. This function of the limbic system clearly has survival value, which is why modern day humans have inherited it.
Components Of The Limbic System:
The limbic system comprises :
– the amygdala
– the hippocampus
– mammillary body
– olfactory cortex
– cingulate gyrus
The positioning in the brain of the above regions is shown in the diagram below:
How Can The Experience Of Childhood Trauma Cause The Limbic System To Become Dysfunctional?
If as children, our limbic system was repeatedly activated by threatening and frightening experiences then its development may have been disrupted. This may mean that it becomes HYPERSENSITIVE to perceived threat AND OVER- REACTIVE to perceived threat.
Importantly, the limbic system may cause us to OVER-REACT TO PERCEIVED THREATS THAT WE ONLY PERCEIVE ON AN UNCONSCIOUS LEVEL. For example, if someone in authority speaks to us in a manner that, on an unconscious level, reminds us of how an abusive parent used to speak to us, we might become extremely anxious, frightened or aggressive (aggression here would represent an unconscious drive to defend ourselves).
However, because of a quality of the brain known as neuroplasticity, this disrupted part of the brain can begin to heal itself through factors including the avoidance of excessive stress, strong and reliable emotional support, self-compassion, a safe and stable environment, and, research has shown, the practice of mindfulness meditation.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).