“Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness”: hippocampal failure!



”This is known as hippocampal failure. On the day of Tim’s robbery, powerful stress hormones (adrenaline, cortisol) released in his body had temporarily disabled his hippocampus, preventing his prefrontal cortex from receiving the news that the robbery was over.


His amygdala was continuing to sound the alarm and creating problems. As neuropsychologist Rick Hanson (2009) writes in his book Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom,



“It’s a bad combination for the amygdala to be over-sensitized while the hippocampus is compromised: painful experiences can then be recorded in implicit memory—with all the distortions and turbo-charging of an amygdala on overdrive—without an accurate memory of them” (p. 57).



Again, this makes evolutionary sense. When faced with a threatening experience, it’s critical that we be able to act quickly and instinctively (the low road) instead of relating it to past events and rationally thinking it through (the high road).



But this hippocampal failure is meant to be short lived. Following a traumatic event, the hippocampus is meant to come back online, informing the rational brain about the time sequence—especially the ending—of the event.



The rational brain can then instruct the amygdala to stop sounding the alarm, bringing the body back into its natural state of equilibrium.



But when an event exceeds our capacity for integration, survivors can end up confined in an abyss where their emotional brains keep responding as if the trauma were still happening.



It’s imperative to keep this dynamic in mind when we ask people to be mindful.



Survivors are often coping with disintegrated thoughts, emotions, images, and physical sensations that relate to a traumatic experience. It’s easy for them to become triggered.


In fact, simply asking a survivor be mindful of traumatic stimuli can actually reinforce them—one of the reasons trauma survivors require particular kinds of support.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: