How Trauma Hijacks the Brain

There is a security guard in our brain. When everything gets too overwhelming, it takes over. 

“What on earth were you thinking?”

“What on Earth were you thinking?” I’d reckon this is one question foster children are pretty familiar with, and one which they also dread, because they often have no answer. So all they can think to offer in return is “I dunno”

We all know the story: foster carer asks their child a seemingly innocuous question, which rapidly escalates into red-faced screaming profanities, slammed doors and a smashed up bedroom.

There are a million variations on this theme – all of them a total over-reaction to a situation that clearly didn’t warrant a reaction of that scale.

So what really happened? Well, the child was hijacked. Literally. By the security guard in their brain.

 

Fight-Or-Flight

We are all familiar with the fight-or-flight response to perceived threat. It’s an evolutionary trait in which our brains prioritises our need for immediate survival over our need to have a nice cup of tea and a biscuit.

It pumps adrenaline into our bodies, floods us with stress hormones and deprioritises non-essential functions, like our digestive system. This is one reason why we get “butterflies” when we are anxious.

Our bodies are gearing up for a massive battle. We can worry about digesting our biscuits if and when we survive. When our ancestors were faced with the threat of, say, a mountain lion, this was a really valuable trait to have.

 

Threat Assessment

Less well known is the role of part of the brain called the Amygdala. The Amygdala is like a security guard, screening all our sensory input, conducting 24/7 threat assessments on everything we experience. Only when the information is assessed as safe does the Amygdala allow it into our logic circuits.

It does this threat assessment extremely quickly. Studies on animals show Amygdala threat response times of 12 thousandths of a second. It is so fast, it has already reacted before we even get the chance to think.

The Amygdala is like a security guard, screening all our sensory input, conducting 24/7 threat assessments on everything we experience.

Random encounters with actual mountain lions are thankfully a rare thing these days. However, threats come in all shapes and sizes. And key to the Amygdala’s response is the perception of threat, not necessarily the reality of threat.

That threat can be anything from Danger of Imminent Death, to Risk of Harm, to Being a Bit Embarrassed. It doesn’t matter.

The Amygdala only screens for the existence of threat, not the degree of threat. Everything is DefCon 1, and once a threat has been identified, the Amygdala takes over – effectively hijacking all of our functions, including our ability to think or be rational.

 

They Just Lost It

A classic sign that someone has been hijacked is when they go in an instant from relative calm, to a red-faced mix of rage and terror.

– It’s the teenager, suddenly shouting obscenities and barricading themselves in their room.

– It’s the boss who, in a lively meeting, puts his hands over his ears and starts shouting “Shut up! Shut up! Shut uuuuuup!”.

– It’s the stressed-out parent screaming at their child in a supermarket.

– It’s the red-mist of a footballer, diving in two-footed on an opponent.

This rage/terror is often followed by a fairly rapid come-down, in which they may be embarrassed or ashamed and offer an apology. Maybe it’s all too much for them and they become defensive. Either way, it’s the very definition of “I dunno what happened, they just totally lost it”

“I dunno what happened, they just totally lost it”

Amygdala hijacks affect all of us. I’m sure we can all recall a time when we were hijacked. Afterwards, we are left feeling perplexed, wondering “where did that come from?” and regretting our actions.

 

Not Out of Nowhere

Although it can seem that these hijacks just come out of nowhere, that’s not normally the case. More often than not, the scene has been set, making the hijack more of an inevitability than a surprise event.

The triggers children respond to may be highly specific. Such as, every time contact is discussed.

One young girl would scream that her carers were trying to sexually abuse her. The carers couldn’t understand what was triggering these hijacks.

Unbeknownst to them, she had been rewarded with sweets when her parents had sexually abused her. When her foster carers inadvertently gave her the same sweets, the taste triggered her memory of the abuse.

She became fearful that her carers were going to repeat that abuse and her security guard jumped in to keep them at bay.

But the things that cause hijacks aren’t always specific. Something that doesn’t bother us one day, may hijack us the next – making it seem random. But the Amygdala is triggered not by the actual threat, but by the perception of the threat.

 

Trigger Happy Security Guard

When we are relaxed, our Amygdala is an experienced, relaxed and confident security guard – an SAS Soldier, calmly assessing risk. It will be watchful, but will only respond when the risk is serious and immediate.

But when we are stressed or traumatised, our Amygdala acts more like a trigger-happy cop. It’ll freak out at the slightest noise, shooting into shadows, not caring who gets caught in the cross-fire.

We are far more sensitive to perceived threat on the days when we are stressed, tired and vulnerable, than when we are sunning ourselves on the beach.

Our trigger-happy security guard will freak out at the slightest noise, shoot into shadows, and not care who gets caught in the cross-fire.

A lot of background stress gives our Amygdala a hair-trigger response. For example:

– The boss shouting in the meeting may have been threatened with budget cuts and given impossible deadlines, with no support.

– The parent in the supermarket may be juggling three jobs, housework and the care of an elderly relative.

– The footballer may be getting stick from the fans and be under pressure to perform or be dropped.

It’s important to understand the context of a hijack. Not “why did it happen”, but “what were the circumstances in which it happened?”

The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back

We’ve all heard the phrase “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. To understand the Amygdala hijack, it is useful to consider not just the final straw, but all of the ones that were there before.

Children in care are often in care because of the trauma and neglect they have experienced. When children experience one-off traumas, they have the opportunity to reflect and learn about what happened, to heal and move on.

But children who experience repetitive trauma and neglect do not get this chance. They are constantly in survival mode. Their brains cope by increasing their sensitivity to threat – we call it hyper vigilance.

They are carrying more straw on their backs than we necessarily know about. They may hide it from us, they may not be consciously aware of it themselves. But it is there.

Just because they are now living in a safe, stable foster placement doesn’t mean they have off-loaded that straw.

It is more likely that the straw has been added to. Concerns about contact, trust in the carers, worrying about the future, their new school, making new friends in a strange town – they all add to the pile.

 

Bad, Mad or Injured?

If we think that a child is “kicking off” because they are being naughty, then we will think the answer is punishment and consequence

If we think they are injured, we will think they need recuperation and healing

If we think it is because they are mentally unwell, then we will think the answer is treatment and interventions.

But if we think it is because they are injured, we will think they need a period of recuperation and healing.

Without the opportunity to heal from trauma, their security guard is never going to learn to chill out. They will be constantly alert to danger and over-reacting to perceived threats.

 

Taming the Security Guard

So, what can we do differently to un-hijack them and prevent future hijacks? Here’s six tips to taming those trigger-happy security guards.

 

1. Change the Question

The Amygdala threat response comes before rational thought. So asking “what were you thinking?” is not really a helpful question. Neither are “what has got into you?” or “what is wrong with you today?”

The questions are loaded with accusation. Because they cannot be answered, the hijacked person will be unable to explain. This leads to shame, embarrassment and resentment.

Instead of asking “what’s wrong with you?” consider asking “what happened to you?”

The questions also place excessive attention on that final straw, without considering the context.

Instead, consider asking questions like “what happened?”. This gives the child a chance to reflect on what was going on, inside and outside themselves, both in the run-up and at the time. If asked with genuine curiosity, it is unthreatening and shows empathy and support.

 

2. Create a Safe Healing Environment

First and foremost, children need to feel safe, both physically and emotionally. This includes knowing and managing the things that trigger them. In order to heal, we need to be free from repeated trauma.

Check with the child about anything in your home or routines that reminds them of traumatic past events.

Sometimes, it’s simple things that make the biggest difference. I know carers who, in-between placements, redecorated the bedroom for the next foster child. Unknowingly, they had decorated it to be almost identical to the room their new foster child had been sexually abused in for years.

The child didn’t feel she could tell the carers, because they had spoken about how lovely they thought the room was. She was reluctant to go to bed and became triggered every evening. This caused tension between the girl and her carers, who couldn’t understand what was wrong.

 

3. The Ten Second Rule

In a hijack, we are flooded with hormones. For 6-10 seconds, these hormone reduce our ability to think rationally.

Give the child, and yourself, a couple of deep breaths to allow this flood to subside. Use gentle humour and reassurance to show that we are not the threat and that we are on their side.

 

4. Be Mindful of Our Own Hijacks

Hijacks don’t just happen to traumatised children in care. They hit all of us. There will be times when something happens which triggers our inner security guard.

If we are triggered, we are likely to trigger the child, leading to an unpleasant situation all round. Knowing our own triggers gives us the chance to develop strategies for managing them.

 

5. Save the “Talk” Until Later

Trying to have a rational conversation with someone who is triggered will never work. That part of their brain just isn’t functioning. So wait a while for things to calm down. Use the chat to find out about their triggers and about the straw they are carrying. Be curious and empathic. Let them know that it’s ok.

 

6. Collaborate on Solutions

We don’t have to know all the answers. Children often know what they need, but they have learned not to say.  Invite the child to wonder about a different outcome.

Something along the lines of “What would have been a really cool response?”, or “How would you have rather that went?”. Use of role-models can also be effective. “How do you think xyz person would have responded?”.

Once we get a better idea of the child’s definition of better then we can explore what they think they need to achieve it. We become part of their solution, not the other way around.

 

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