A brain under trauma is not the same as a brain in an unstressed state.
When a brain is under stress, different neurochemicals are increased which activates the “fight, flight or freeze” part of the brain. These chemicals also lead you to live in the emotion part of the brain making it hard to make decisions. To be able to make decisions, or have what we call executive function, we need to be able to access our frontal lobe which is not fully formed until about age 25.
Try thinking about it this way:
Say you typically take a certain way to drive home from the store or from work. Your typical route is fast, perhaps on a highway. You get on at one exit and then get off on another exit and its just a short drive to your house from there, maybe a couple of turns. Getting from A to B is pretty simple. The problem is that there is a lot of traffic, and you end up stopping and going, getting annoyed that cars are stopping but there doesn’t seem to be any reason for the stop. By the time you get home, you are aggravated and tired.
There’s another way for you to get home that you start taking. This way takes about the same amount of time to get home but its on a smaller road which has some bends in it. You have to take multiple turns before getting to your house so you have to pay more attention to the signs along the way. The view from this road is much nicer than on the highway and you find yourself getting home after taking this route feeling tired but also calm and more relaxed.
One day you are hurrying to get home because you are hosting a party. It has been a stressful day, you had multiple errands to run to prepare for the party and you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed along with worried that you will not get everything done by the time the party starts. You are heading home from the store. Which road do you take? You will get home at about the same time no matter which road you take but one is more routine but with lots of traffic and the other you have to pay more attention to the road signs but is a much more pleasant drive.
Reading this, you probably would pick the second road, knowing that the experience will be better overall and you will get home at a similar time. But a stressed brain is not able to think through the scenario clearly and is more likely to revert to old habits. Our brains get wired to certain neurological pathways and, unless we are freely able to access our executive function, we access the road most traveled, the one that we know better. This may not be the best decision to make but in a trauma state, it is harder to override the more traveled neurological pathway to make a better choice.
I think about this scenario often when meeting with people to discuss making changes to their behaviors. Our brains and neurochemicals may be making decisions for us that are the easier decision but may not be the best one for our bodies and ourselves. For example, when I ask people what they think of when I mention carbohydrates, they often tell me, “All the good stuff.” I have to agree! When we eat carbohydrates, our brain releases dopamine which tells us, “Yes! I like that. I want more!” We get pleasure from eating foods that break down into sugar. So it makes sense that we seek out carbohydrates. We know that eating too much carb can be harmful to our bodies and to blood sugar, but it is going to take that executive function to help us choose other foods and be aware of how much carbohydrates we are eating. In a stressful situation, it is inherently harder to access that executive function to make the decision to choose fruit and nuts over a donut.
In a stressful situation, it is inherently harder to access that executive function to make the decision to choose fruit and nuts over a donut.
If that is especially true for you, we might dig deeper to figure out how hard wired that neurological pathway is for you and think of some ways of bypassing that. How else can we respond to stress that will be more beneficial to us?
So, when you encounter someone who seems to make the wrong decisions for themselves, ask yourself, what state of mind are they when they are making these decisions? What in their history may have encouraged the pathways that their mind takes leading to less healthy decisions? How can we provide safe space to allow them to exit the trauma brain and enter back into their executive function?
Remember, the brain has plasticity. We CAN change our
neurological pathways with time, focus and energy, but a safe space to allow these changes to happen is vital to the process. Until we feel safe, it will always be a challenge to make the better health decision.