NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Trauma, the Triune Brain & Somatic Experiencing

What is the Triune Brain?
The triune brain is made up of three parts that developed in humans through evolution over time. Triune means "three in one."

Trauma, the Triune Brain and Somatic Experiencing

There is the reptilian brain, the mammalian brain, and the cognitive brain. All three parts of the brain inter-relate and communicate with each other. The reptilian brain developed first and it is the oldest part of the brain. The mammalian brain developed next, and the cognitive brain developed last in evolution.

I will discuss the reptilian brain last since this is the part of the brain that carries trauma when a person has been overwhelmed by a traumatic event.

The Cognitive Brain:
The cognitive brain is located in the pre-frontal or neo-cortex part of the brain. As mentioned earlier, this was the last part of the brain to develop through evolution. The cognitive brain is responsible for thoughts, planning, language, logic and awareness.

The Mammalian Brain:
The mammalian brain was the second part of the brain to develop through evolution. It is located in the middle brain. The mammalian brain mediates feelings, relationships, nurturing, images, and unconscious activity, including dreams and play. The mammalian brain fosters attachment between caregivers and infants when there is good enough caregiving. It also fosters empathy between individuals.

The Reptilian Brain:
The reptilian brain developed first during the evolutionary development of the brain, and it can be found in species from reptiles to humans. It is the oldest part of the brain in terms of the development of the triune brain. The reptilian brain sits at the base of the skull. It's responsible for instincts, including the sympathetic nervous system's survival instinct of fight-flight-freeze when there is perceived danger.

When a person perceives him or herself to be in danger, emotions and physiological energy are generated by the reptilian brain so that the person can take action. When this energy is not discharged (through flight or flight), it is stored in the person's muscle tissue. This emotion and energy are imprinted in the nervous system. This is what we mean when we refer to "trauma." Trauma is usually associated with feelings of powerlessness and helplessness.

Somatic Experiencing and the Trauma Vortex:
According to Peter Levine, Ph.D., who developed Somatic Experiencing, this trauma-related energy, which has not been discharged, can be conceptualized as being part of a trauma vortex.

Trauma, the Triune Brain and Somatic Experiencing 

The trauma vortex is a metaphor to describe what happens when trauma-related energy is "stuck" and has not been discharged. The trauma-related energy saps the person of vitality. This energy is trapped and unavailable for other life-affirming and life-enhancing activities.

Somatic Experiencing and the Healing Vortex:
Just as we can conceptualize the trauma vortex as the place where trauma-related energy is stuck, in Somatic Experiencing, we can also conceptualize the metaphor of a healing vortex.

The Somatic Experiencing therapist helps the client to develop this positive, healing energy to counteract the negative experience of the trauma vortex. The healing vortex can be any positive experiences, associations, memories, visualizations, and felt sense experiences that the traumatized person develops in Somatic Experiencing therapy.

The Somatic Experiencing therapist facilitates the healing process by "titrating" the processing of the trauma in therapy. "Titration" in this context means that the trauma is processed in manageable doses so it does not overwhelm the client or retraumatize him or her.

Trauma, the Triune Brain and Somatic Experiencing

Gradually, over time, the client, who is in Somatic Experiencing therapy, develops a greater capacity for self containment. By tracking the client's physiological and emotional experiences in treatment and with the use of titration, the Somatic Experiencing therapist helps the client to expand this capacity over time, so that as treatment unfolds, the client is better able to tolerate processing the trauma with increased coping abilities and a greater capacity for resilience.

When trauma is being processed, the therapist is dealing with the client's reptilian brain, where the trauma is stored. Compared to the cognitive brain (neo-cortex), the reptilian brain processes information 7x slower. This is why trauma work must be done in manageable pieces because if too much trauma work is done too soon, the reptilian brain becomes easily overwhelmed.

Somatic Experiencing is a mind-body oriented psychotherapy and it is one of the safest and most effective ways to process emotional trauma.

To find out more about Somatic Experiencing, visit the Somatic Experiencing website:

About Me
I am a NYC licensed psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR therapist, and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.