Cognitive and Emotional Brain Processing in Trauma Therapy

TreesThe Triune Brain is a useful concept in understanding the interaction between cognitive and emotional brain processing. According to MacLean (1985) the human brain is a 3-part system:

  • The Brain Stem or Reptilian Brain is responsible for activation, arousal, and homeostasis. It’s about regulation.
  • The Limbic System: learning, memory, emotion. It wraps around the reptilian brain. It’s about relating.
  • The Cerebral Cortex: conscious thought, problem solving, self-awareness. Verbal communication. It’s about reason.

Researchers have found is that trauma is processed in the limbic part of the brain—which is wrapped up around the brain stem, the reptilian brain—not the cerebral cortex or the rational part of the brain (Siegel, 2003; van der Kolk, 2014). Together the brain stem and the limbic system form the emotional brain (van der Kolt 2014).

After having experienced trauma, the amygdala in the limbic brain becomes oversensitive to threat activating physiological and emotional responses that replicate the original trauma. These automatic fight/flight/freeze responses, originating from the reptilian brain, create distress in trauma survivors (van der Kolk, 2014).

When a person is traumatized or experiences traumatic stress, problems start to occur in the brain. When the amygdala fires, the cerebral cortex stops working fully or all together (Siegel, 2003; van der Kolk, 2014).  This makes it harder to control emotions and impulses, think, speak or act rationally, or be able to feel the visceral sensations in our body (Payne, Levine, & Crane-Godreau 2015).

Somatic (body-oriented) therapy works with the visceral sensations of the body, thus it’s an effective technique to work through trauma. By starting to connect with the reptilian brain co-regulation begins to occur between the therapist and the client. This it the first step in brain rewiring. The body, the emotions and the thoughts also begin to integrate and the client learns to trust the process.


MacLean, P. D. (1985). Brain evolution relating to family, play and the separation call.  Archives of General Psychiatry, 42, 405-417.

Payne, P., Levine, P., & Crane-Godreau. (2015). Somatic experiencing:  Using interoception and proprioception as core elements of trauma therapy. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(93), 1-18.

Siegel, D. (2003). An interpersonal neurobiology of psychotherapy:  The developing mind and resolution of trauma. In M. Solomon & D. Siegel (Eds.), Healing trauma:  Attachment, mind, body and brain (pp. 1-56). New York: Norton.

van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score:  Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Penguin.

© Maria Stella, PhD. All Rights Reserved.

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