Published on September 13th, 2013 | by Kristen Kansiewicz

What Is The Limbic System, and How Does It Help Process Trauma?

Your brain is amazing. While some may think of it like a computer, the brain is far more complex and capable than any computer (or tablet!) known to man. While we still have so much to learn about how the brain works, what we’ve learned so far can help us understand what happens to our brains when we experience trauma.

It is generally understood that our brains have three different types of memory: working memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory.

Working memory allows us to remember a grocery list and then write it down, do math in our head, or keep track of where we are on our to-do list. It is the first step in learning something new or accomplishing a task.

Short-term memory is used when we need to remember something for a little while but don’t need to focus on it this very minute. Things like where you parked your car while you are in a store or what you had for lunch yesterday are good examples of short-term memory. These will most likely be forgotten when you no longer need them.

Long-term memory is the way in which your brain remembers all of those parts of short-term memory that were processed for storage. Skills you learn, life experiences, memories you want to keep, or positive and negative thoughts reside in long-term memory.

When most people talk about short-term or working memory, they would point to the front of their brains (or in front of the forehead) to describe where it feels like the thoughts are. When they describe where their long-term memories are, they are likely to point to the back of their heads (in the lower, back region of the brain just above the neck). We instinctively have a sense that memories move from the front to the back of our brains for storage.

In a Scientific American article about short-term and long-term memory, Professor Alison Preston describes how our brains process memory normally. The area of your brain called the hippocampus is where short-term memory is stored. It is the place where feelings connect with memory; it is a part of the limbic system which experiences emotions. When you are learning or experiencing something, your hippocampus takes it in and connects it with your emotions.

Those memories that your brain decides to keep get moved into the neocortex where they become long-term memories. When you recall a memory, your brain sends the information from the neocortex back into the hippocampus temporarily. Because your limbic system is again involved, you can feel like you are back where you were when the memory was created. You experience the memory all over again because it is again residing in your short-term memory.

When we experience a trauma, our limbic system reacts. We release stress hormones (cortisol) and experience emotions like fear or anxiety. Sometimes our memories temporarily stop working, as in a car accident or other sudden shocking experience. This is why there may be some parts of the traumatic experience that cannot be recalled.

There is also a disruption in memory processing. The traumatic memories often do not get stored properly as long-term memories; rather the hippocampus remains involved in the memory, making you feel as though you are experiencing it all over again. The Effect of PTSD on the Brain describes more about how the hippocampus reacts to trauma.

Some trauma therapies specifically target these physical inner-workings of the brain in order to help your brain and entire body process trauma and trauma memories correctly: Sensorimotor Psychotherapy and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR.

Not everyone who experiences trauma will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms of this disorder include flashbacks of the traumatic event, avoidance of anything associated with the trauma, intense fear reactions, and hyper-vigilance (being “on guard” for any possible recurrence of trauma). We will have an article specifically about PTSD later this month.

If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, seek professional help. Sensorimotor psychotherapy or EMDR may be offered by counselors in your area, and a simple internet search may direct you to the right kind of help.

Image by Miranda Knox via Stock.Xchng.

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