Updated: Jan 31
I’m a writer. I write for a living, and I write for my volunteer work. So after trying to help our adopted son with reactive attachment disorder over six years, I thought I should write about that experience. I figured it would be therapeutic and perhaps helpful to other parents going through something similar.
But when I sat down to begin, the cursor just blinked back at me. I couldn’t recall any details to make our experiences with our son come alive in writing. It was the strangest thing. I’d heard the term “trauma brain,” but I didn’t really know what it meant or if it applied to my inability to remember things the way I could for other periods in my life.
As a writer, when you write a scene, you want to include things like people’s movements and expressions, what you felt, where you were, what was said. I could remember the laundry list of things that had happened: our son stole my wedding ring, ran away because we asked him to do his chores, and was admitted to the state mental hospital, etc.
But when I dug for those details in my brain from the past six years, I found I could better recall vivid details from my own childhood. That is the moment that I realized that I have “trauma brain.” It’s a real thing.
What Experts Say About Trauma Brain
I asked expert Forrest Lien, LCSW, about trauma brain. Lien spent the last four decades of his career working with children with developmental trauma and their families.
He was the keynote speaker at the Navigating RAD 2022 Experience. There, Lien presented on “'Why Am I Feeling Crazy?': The Life of RAD Parenting.”
Here, Lien walks us through how the brain reacts to traumatic situations and their long-term impacts.
“There’s a stress hormone called cortisol that floods the brain when we’re stressed out,” Lien says. Cortisol can help save us in stressful situations like running from a lion. But it can also be produced and maintained at high levels in those who have experienced trauma or the lasting impacts of trauma. One of the negative consequences of cortisol can be memory loss.
I’d heard the term “trauma brain,” but I didn’t really know what it meant or if it applied to my inability to remember things the way I could for other periods in my life.
Most of our kids with reactive attachment disorder have experienced a great deal of trauma. In addition to cortisol, the brain’s limbic system plays a key role in processing emotion and memory. The limbic system includes the hippocampus, amygdala, and hypothalamus.
“The limbic system is the affect part of the brain,” Lien explains. “It’s fully developed when we’re born. You can feel mad, sad, scared, happy, but we don’t know what to do with it because the prefrontal cortex isn’t fully mature until mid-20s. The prefrontal cortex is the abstract thinking part of the brain. If the limbic system is in an alarm state, it’s difficult for the prefrontal cortex to mature. That’s why a lot of kids with RAD are stuck in a younger place. Their brains must be calmed first. It’s difficult to parent if their brains are in that mode. The more stress triggers, the more the post-traumatic stress response.”
The prefrontal cortex, located in the frontal lobe, is responsible for executive functioning – thinking, decision-making, planning, and moderating social behavior. It also plays a role in memory.
“The cortex will not lock in memories as well when you’re in a stressful place,” Lien says. “You might have fragments of that memory, but you don’t have the story of that memory.”
Many of our kids have post-traumatic stress disorder, and we often develop it too from the trauma reactive attachment disorder causes in our homes and relationships.
“If you suffer from post-traumatic stress, you will likely overuse some parts of your brain and underuse others,” writes Melanie Greenberg Ph.D., in the Psychology Today article “Understanding the Trauma Brain.” “The parts of your brain involved in monitoring for signs of danger and anticipating what could go wrong are overused. Because experiencing severe trauma can shut down other systems not involved in emergency responding, it is also likely that parts of your brain … are underutilized.”
“The cortex will not lock in memories as well when you’re in a stressful place,” Lien says. “You might have fragments of that memory, but you don’t have the story of that memory.” Bingo!
But you don’t need a PTSD diagnosis to suffer from trauma-related memory issues. Some research has indicated that traditional memory pathways are bypassed during a fearful event. These memories instead become “locked away” in an unconscious move by our brains to protect us.
“The brain doesn’t want to feel stress, so it will disassociate to get past it and get through it,” Lien says.
One type of memory, episodic memory, has to do with how you remember specific events, including traumatic memories. “This can include memories such as specific words or actions that occurred during a traumatic assault, memories of the physical or emotional pain you experienced, or how scared you felt before, during and after a traumatic event,” writes Rachel Mullins, LCSW. “The hippocampus in the brain is the area associated with episodic memory and is involved in creating and recalling episodic memories. When a trauma occurs, episodic memory can become fragmented and the sequences of events can get jumbled up in your brain. You can think of it like your memories being in a file cabinet. They might be all in order before a significant traumatic event happens, but trauma is like someone opening up the file cabinet, throwing all the files on the floor, and mixing them up.”
All of this certainly explains my brain’s inability to recall details of the past six years.
Is There a Cure for Trauma Brain?
I don’t need to recall in detail these past events. But the fact remains that I experienced trauma. And our kids experienced even more trauma. That trauma impacted our highly sensitive and complex brains.
Many of our kids have post-traumatic stress disorder, and we often develop it too from the trauma reactive attachment disorder causes in our home and relationships.
It’s helpful first to understand a bit about what happened to our brains and the way they work – hence this article.
Along with our trauma comes triggers – another unconscious reaction of our brain trying to protect us. These we do need to understand and address, or they will continue to impact our emotions and reactions.
Working with a therapist who is a good fit, journaling, reading up on the subject, joining support groups, etc., are all ways to begin working through our past trauma, unpacking it, understanding our triggers and learning new ways to react. As we do this and with time, pieces of our memory may come back, or not, but either way we’ll hopefully begin to heal.
About the Author:
Micaela Myers and her husband adopted a pair of siblings from foster care in 2015, when the children were 9 and 13. Since then, she has become an advocate for foster care reform and the support and education of adoptive parents. She was a member and is a supporter of RAD Advocates. Micaela earned her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works as a professional writer and editor in Wyoming.