Monthly Archives May 2024

How Trauma Shakes Up the ‘Puzzle Pieces’ of the Brain

Kendall Circle Headshot

By Kendall Wolz
Mental Health and Wellness Manager at Mosaic Georgia

A transcript of an interview Mosaic Georgia’s Director of Mental Health & Wellness, Kendall Wolz

Can you tell us a little about your background?

My name is Kendall, and I am the director of mental health and wellness services here at Mosaic, Georgia. I hold a LPC, which means I’m a licensed professional counselor. So I get to not only oversee our program, but also provide direct services to clients.


How long have you been in this field?

I would say I’ve been in the helping profession since 2010, so gosh, 14 years. But specifically as a counselor, I’ve been seeing clients since 2018. I’ve been with Mosaic Georgia for a year and a half. It’ll be two years in October. I joined the staff and helped launch the Mental Health and Wellness Services in October of 2022.


So that launches us right into what is now upon us – Mental Health Awareness Month, which is of course the big topic. Let’s talk how trauma affects the brain. People tend to forget that the brain is an organ that has its own way of acting, the way any other organ would in the body. There are some scientific elements in terms of how the brain might react, or behaviors that might show up, that people who have not experienced significant trauma may not understand. Can you talk a little bit about how the brain typically records memories and then how that process could change when the body is in a mode of fight or flight?

I always talk about the brain as an organ of our body that is designed to protect us, to keep us safe, to keep us alive. Many of our organs have that role. And when they’re not threatened, when they’re not sick, when they’re not facing challenges, they usually work properly and do just that. However, when we experience something like a traumatic event, it sort of rattles our systems and they don’t function as they do in other circumstances.

If we think about the brain in its neutral or baseline state where everything is fine, memories are encoded using all parts of our brain. There’s the sensory pieces of memories that get recorded so we can recall how we felt when certain events happened, what something may have smelled like or tasted like or felt like to touch; we can recall maybe what thoughts we had. We can also recall those narrative portions of that event. We can tell the story of ‘this is what happened’ and ‘that is what happened’. So I compare it [the brain] to a puzzle. In that neutral state, we have access to all the puzzle pieces and that memory is getting stored as a complete puzzle.

However, when trauma happens or a traumatic event occurs, those memories don’t get stored as a full puzzle. Instead, it’s like someone shook that puzzle up or tossed all the pieces up in the air. And that memory is getting stored with some of the puzzle pieces and maybe not all of them. And the way that that typically looks is that when a person has experienced a trauma, they have difficulty accessing some pieces of that memory.


How does this show up when someone discloses abuse?

It may mean they can’t tell us that narrative portion of ‘I did this, and ‘then I did this, and then this happened’, or give us that complete storyline that we desire. Instead, what they may recall is what was playing on the TV in the background for example. There’s a very strong sensory aspect of the memory. They may recall how something smelled and can tell you in great detail what that was like, but it wouldn’t be fair for us to expect them to be able to give us the full puzzle of that memory, because that’s just not how the brain stores what has occurred.

Very rarely when a trauma occurs is a person going to think about, let me jot down, let me remind myself what time it is when this happened or what day it occurred. And especially when there’s chronic or long-term trauma events that occur multiple times in multiple settings, it’s difficult. The brain isn’t thinking, ‘what time is it, what day is it?’ Instead, the brain is thinking, ‘I’ve got to survive’.

People unfortunately can tend to question why someone would wait a long period of time to disclose abuse. Can you talk a little about how common that is and how it affects the healing process?

Some studies have shown and some organizations have stated that the average age of disclosure for childhood sexual abuse is the age of 55. And so if that length of time has passed since a trauma occurs, what we typically see is that – let’s say a person never received any form of treatment for a trauma and many years have passed – it is challenging.

Typically that trauma, that may have been a single event, becomes more complex because of the symptoms they experience, the ways that they may try to self-soothe or to cope, and the way that other people respond to them. Often we see that there’s this pattern of multiple hurts and harms over their lifetime,

but it’s never too late to begin therapy and it’s never too late to heal.

We have many, many studies and I have a lot of personal experience from my work where I’ve seen people who didn’t disclose as kids and are now adults, they work through their trauma and are able to find that joy in life again that was stolen when the trauma occurred.


The Hand Model of the Brain

I’ll sometimes use Dr. Dan Siegel’s hand model of the brain. The way that that works is you ball up your fist and think of it as your brain. The front part of our brains behind our forehead is our prefrontal cortex. Not only is it the last thing to develop – our executive functioning–decision making, reasoning, higher level thoughts – but it’s also the least important when our lives feel threatened, or a traumatic event is occurring.

If you open your hand and lift up the four fingers, then you would see your lower brain and your midbrain. For survival, we need all the energy in this part of our brain. This is where our stress hormones are released. This is where our body goes into that fight or flight response which is what keeps us alive and keeps us going.

Sometimes we’ll talk about when a kid gets dysregulated, their ‘lid is flipped’. They can’t access the front part – the executive functioning piece, the thought process, the reasoning. It’s the same way when a trauma occurs, we’re not going to have time to think about ‘what am I going to do?’ Instead, we just go into the automatic responses.

It’s just really what our brain does. It’s what it was designed to do, But it’s not exactly what society wants from people.


Is access to the more episodic information, like dates, times and locations gone forever?

A lot of times people are expected to give that full puzzle memory quickly–right away. But really their bodies are still in that hyperarousal state, that fight or flight response. If we just give them some time to be able to regulate and feel safe again, then sometimes they are able to access more of those pieces of the puzzle.

I think the expectation or the hope is that they can provide that information right away. And sometimes it’s just not reasonable for us to expect that.

Do you think that most responders who are dealing with those types of situations and listening to disclosures understand the challenges in recalling information, or do you think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in creating more awareness around it?

I think there’s definitely room for more awareness. However, we have come a long way from where we were a decade ago and definitely, for example, three decades ago. There has been improvement. There is more awareness and understanding from a science perspective of what happens with our brain. But I think it takes a while to shift attitudes and long held beliefs about expectations of how a survivor should act after trauma.

An eye-opening animated video using a real-life scenario, effectively illustrates how trauma affects the brain.


Other Helpful and Informative Resources

Mosaic Georgia 24/7 FREE Crisis Line: 866-900-6019

Watch as Dr. Seigel explains his hand model of the brain

Read more from Kendall Wolz about trauma and the brain

Read about the trauma brain in Psychology Today.

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