When you go into ‘survival mode’, stress hormones are produced, especially Cortisol and Adrenaline. But what do these hormones actually do? We don’t know everything about the brain yet, but thanks to modern techniques, quite specific studies can be done to clearify.


This hormone has the result that it shuts down the Hippocampus. A seahorse-shaped piece that is located in the interior of both hemispheres of the brain. It stores new memories (explicit memory) which, if they prove to be of sufficient value, are stored in the long-term memory of the Cortex. When the hippocampus stops working properly, it causes short-term memory loss and often disorientation. A prolonged period of high doses of Cortisol in the blood even causes damage to the Hippocampus. This also means that long-term memory becomes damaged.


You also produce Adrenaline that enhances the functioning of the Amygdala. A kind of bean-like piece that, like the Hippocampus, is part of the Libic system and too is located in both hemispheres of the brain. The Amygdala plays a role in the storage of memories of emotional events. It determines whether something that enters through the senses is safe or unsafe, in this way emotions are linked to sensory experiences and the objects, people and animals that are associated with them. With constant over-activation of the Amygdala, these links can be stored as long-term conditioning (automatic responses), which triggers and sets in motion fear responses.

Trauma and stress means constantly increased amounts of these hormones and that is why there is so much anxiety that cannot be influenced through cognitive thinking. You often feel that you have no control over your behaviour, feeling and thinking. And if you look at it biologically, that makes a lot of sense.

The good news is that this can be repaired, but as you can imagine, this is virtually impossible with logical thinking and talking, which is located in the cortex. “I know, but my body is constantly on fire.” Also cognitively changing behavior only puts more pressure on the survival system.

This is why it is so important that we focus more on the subcortical brain and body, such as breathing techniques, focus on the now (mindfulness, yoga), nervous system exercises and brain integration exercises. EMDR* and Internal Family Systems Therapy are very effective to help the substantive thoughts and emotions get out of that whirlwind and choas.

Conclusion: you are not sick, your system does exactly what it should do: survive!!

* EMDR has been shown to be especially effective in adult incident trauma and less so in developmental or attachment trauma.

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“Trauma is how you function in life from survival, NOW”

Nikki Nooteboom