Learn about the brain’s response to trauma

When a person experiences a traumatic event, the primitive or reptilian brain goes on red alert. See below to understand why working at a deeper level than the conscious part of the mind can be a powerful tool in dealing with PTSD. People with PTSD commonly feel disconnected and numb. Yoga means union or yoke, bringing together. The practices in this program can help you feel more connected to yourself and others and to feel more positive. In addition to talking and other therapies, we need to create conditions whereby the primitive brain heals and comes out of the state of red alert. The illustration of the two pathways of fear below shows how this process works in the brain. People with PTSD can be stuck in a hyper-vigilance response cycle. Yoga therapy that works below the level of the thoughts in the mind can help to heal this pattern.

The following is a basic explanation of brain anatomy and function from McGill University and the Canadian Institute of Health Research and Canadian Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction.

Your amygdalae are essential to your ability to feel certain emotions and to perceive them in other people. This includes fear and the many changes that it causes in the body. If you are being followed at night by a suspect-looking individual and your heart is pounding, chances are that your amygdalae are very active!


Source: University of Washington Digital Anatomist Program

In certain studies, researchers have directly stimulated the amygdalae of patients who were undergoing brain surgery, and asked them to report their impressions. The subjective experience that these patients reported most often was one of imminent danger and fear. In studies of the very small number of patients who have had had only their amygdala destroyed (as the result of a stroke, for example), they recognized the facial expressions of every emotion except fear.

In fact, the amygdala seems to modulate all of our reactions to events that are very important for our survival. Events that warn us of imminent danger are therefore very important stimuli for the amygdala, but so are events that signal the presence of food, sexual partners, rivals, children in distress, and so on.

Two Pathways of Fear:

The amygdala lets us react almost instantaneously to the presence of a danger. So rapidly that often we startle first, and realize only afterward what it was that frightened us. How is this possible?


amygdala path

It all has to start, of course, with a sensory stimulus, such as a strange shape or a menacing sound. Like all information captured by the senses, this message must be routed first to the thalamus. The thalamus then sends this message on to the appropriate sensory cortex (visual cortex, auditory cortex, etc.), which evaluates it and assigns it a meaning. If this meaning is threatening, then the amygdala is informed and produces the appropriate emotional responses.

But what has been discovered much more recently is that a part of the message received by the thalamus is transferred directly to the amygdala, without even passing through the cortex! It is this second route, much shorter and therefore much faster, that explains the rapid reaction of our natural alarm system.

Since everything has a price, this route that short-circuits the cortex provides only a crude discrimination of potentially threatening objects. It is the cortex that provides the confirmation, a few fractions of a second later, as to whether a given object actually represents a danger. Those fractions of a second could be fatal if we had not already begun to react to the danger. And if the cortex turns out to advise us that there is nothing to worry about after all, we have merely had a good scare, and that is it.