The Scent of a Lion: Trauma and the Brain

Even now, orange juice still scares me. Even a photo of orange juice scares me.

One of my earliest memories is of my mother hitting me on the head with a chair.  It isn’t my earliest memory, but it is one of them.  I’m pretty sure the chair stunt was precipitated by my knocking over the orange juice at the breakfast table.

So you can understand that I think quite a lot about trauma and how it works.  Managing traumatic reactions is part of what I find necessary to get through the day, and I do find it a little tedious, and I am working at fixing these little problems once and for all.  So it’s important to me to understand this.

What struck me recently, as a kind of new realization about the whole thing, is that whatever we did at the time of a traumatic event, our brains record as having been a success.  No matter how frightened or confused or badly hurt we were, we lived.  That’s success.

The brain structures involved in traumatic responses, which I do have a tendency to get muddled all over again every time I look them up, involve the amygdala (definitely), the hippocampus (I think), and the anterior gyrate cyngulate (possibly) and are extremely primitive.  Reptiles have them, which is why some people refer to it as the lizard brain.  The lizard brain is not designed for anything too complex.  Not getting eaten is at about the right level..

If you did not get eaten, whatever you did worked.  The amygdala takes note, and this response will most likely to be repeated the next time it looks like you are about to be in the same kind of danger as you were the last time.  Because, really, you don’t have a lot of time to think or react to most life-threatening situations.  You need to act, and act quickly–it’s much more practical to have a gameplan immediately at hand, like a fire drill.

A Speke’s Gazelle at Saint Louis Zoo. Copyright Eric Bloemker.

Repeating past reactions causes problems for us because it was never designed for the complex worlds we live in.  If you imagine yourself as a Speke’s gazelle on the veldt of Africa (I am fond of Speke’s gazelles), and you’ve been attacked by a lion once before, but then managed to escape, then you can imagine you would be inclined to do the same thing you did before as soon as you smell a lion.  The difference is, if you are a gazelle, the scent of a lion nearly always signals another lion.  The sensory information is not ambiguous or confusing, it doesn’t have multiple causes, and its meaning is unlikely to change over time.

Not so for people.  If I spill something or drop something or am otherwise a bit clumsy or, in fact, make any kind of minor mistake, I relive a bit of the chair-attack, because that is what most immediately and obviously preceded being bludgeoned with a kitchen chair.

A mistake is my scent of a lion.  I actually don’t really know what I do at that point, because I dissociate and then everything gets a bit vague, but it’s probably some variation of whatever I did when I was two.  (I suspect it is to become extremely compliant.)  Only I am not two, and no one is likely to hit me over the head with a chair.  And being extremely compliant often does not work out well for me.

The Limbic System. Courtesy John R. Hesselink, M.D.

To really hammer the point, the signals our brains so carefully record and retain to keep us safe from danger are often false signals.  Entirely different situations may share similar elements: Combat veteran returned from one of our many recent wars may hear the sound of explosions and instinctively dive for cover, because that is what kept them alive in Afghanistan or Iraq.  Back home though, the explosions are more likely to be only the sound of their childrens’ computer games.  Diving for cover is embarrassing and scares the kids.

And, unlike the Speke’s gazelle, our lives often change.  We change.  Those around us change.  Stimuli that once signaled danger may signal nothing at all.  Even if it does signal danger, the response that will save us may be different.

We also have much bigger brains, and can make generalizations about the elements of the event.  Those generalizations may also play a part.  So, for example, I have generalized spilling juice to all mistakes.  This compounds the problem, rather than making me more safe, because now I have a traumatic reaction to a wider variety of harmless stimuli.

Traumatic responses cause problems.  Even if I am able to suppress the urge to run around the room screaming if I drop a cup of tea at work, my body will still leap into action: suppressing my pre-frontal cortex, elevating my heart rate and respiration, routing bloodflow away from my digestive system, and possibly giving me the sudden urge to vomit.  (Like sea cucumbers, some people seem to vomit under stress to distract the predator with a smaller meal.)  My brain is also likely to flood with the hormone cortisol, which suppresses the immune system (among other things).

None of these things are good.  I need my pre-frontal cortex in full operation at work.  Having regularly elevated heart rate and respiration leads to nasty things like heart attacks.  Erratic bloodflow to the stomach and bowels can manifest itself as IBS.  Even if your PTSD symptoms don’t cause problems for you in your job performance or personal relationships, they still suck at an entirely physical level.

But my lizard brain doesn’t know this.  It learned spilling juice meant terrible things could happen, and it is designed to make sure they don’t happen again.  The only solution is to unlearn what I learned.  And, as I can tell you based on what I see of my students, it is a lot harder to unlearn something than it is to learn it.

For those of you who might have stumbled across this post because you are in a similar situation and looking for some practical tips, I can tell you what has worked for me.  It is, actually, the only thing that has ever worked for me.

I practice having a non-traumatic the traumatic stimuli.  I teach myself that it is safe.

I am not saying I tell myself.  The lizard brain doesn’t understand language all that well.  And if I am really good and properly scared, it’s likely that my Wernicke’s area is not at full capacity and won’t understand, but the lizard brain does understand sensory input.  It understands experiences.  And it can’t distinguish between imagination and reality–at least not very well–which can be used to good advantage.

The view from my window calms me.

So, I call up some portion of the traumatic memories (obviously, there’s more there than just the chair), and then I proceed to alter the physical reactions to the trauma that I have some conscious control over (like breathing) and give myself mental images or real experiences of safety.  I imagine myself with a good friend, or I pet the cat, or I watch the birds outside through my beautiful, room-wide windows.  And then I do it again.  I’ve been doing this for several hours a week for about two years.  Essentially, what I’m teaching myself is how to interrupt the automatic traumatic response.

Lion in pursuit of a gazelle. Courtesy Thomson Safaris.

I’m sure there’s more to it than all of that, and that there are other complex aspects of the trauma–such as the meaning I’ve made of it and how I’ve come to see myself–that can only be dealt with through the skilled help of a psychotherapist.  Which I’m doing as well

But this part, the unlearning part, is the worst part as well as the part that no one else has ever been able to help me with, and has kept me mired in that moment before the chair hit me, before I lost consciousness, and before I woke up in a pool of blood.  It has kept me from being able to move forward, because the unlearning is the most important part.

If you want to know where I got the idea, I got it off the Internet.  And I can’t find it again.  I looked.  It may still be there, but I can’t find it.

But the main thing is that it works.  I do sense normalcy on the horizon at last–possibly within reach.  Even if it was hard.  And it took a long time.  And tired me out.  I have found a way to unlearn that the scent of a lion means danger.

Further Reading:

Neuroscientists Identify how Trauma Triggers Long-Lasting Memories in the Brain.  (2005, August 18).  Science Daily.  Retrieved from:

20 thoughts on “The Scent of a Lion: Trauma and the Brain

    • ashanam September 9, 2012 / 6:47 pm

      Thanks for the comment and the encouragement!

  1. Jen September 10, 2012 / 9:41 am

    Very insightful and helpful, the dose of humor helps too. Thank you!

    • ashanam September 10, 2012 / 11:07 am

      Thanks for reading!

  2. thehurtfactory September 18, 2012 / 2:45 pm

    Very true – the ‘success’ trigger. For years I was baffled as to why good things brought me down. It was a shock to me to read one day that happiness can also be traumatic!
    When I was a kid, being happy always led to being punished. So I became conditioned to expect happiness to end abruptly and lead to pain. Happiness is so sought after I just couldn’t connect these things as making sense.
    I learned a huge amount about trauma, the lizard and rational brains and the knots they get in, from an excellent book – The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
    I like your ‘therapy’ – aversion therapy. I wonder if you could advance it by setting up several plastic cups of orange juice and knocking them over – the ‘rewarding’ or relaxing? It might stimulate the hard to know regions affected by the original trauma?
    Peace to you – THF

    • ashanam September 18, 2012 / 7:56 pm

      The advantage of working only in the imagination is that I can control the intensity and duration of the stimuli. It’s important the stress not be so intense I dissociate, because then it all comes to a standstill again.

      Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ll have to check that out.

  3. Spiritual Vistas September 19, 2012 / 10:38 am

    Ashanam, great explanation combining how the impact of trauma on the brain translates into life lived. The reason we cannot just unlearn to be triggered by incidents that remind us of past trauma is that those memories are stored in the amygdala, not as verbal processes (as you said, the lizard brain doesn’t understand language well), but as raw emotion. I have found that many people have found release from triggers by allowing themselves to feel it, then to bind and break its power with a clap (it opens the reticular formation giving an escape for the trauma-really layman terms for what happens) followed up by prayer for new neural pathways to be formed. I have seen this work with both Christians and non-Christians in a powerful way. As a psychotherapist it is a technique I sometimes incorporate into my work. It is a technique I learned from Aiko Hormann who combines brain science with Biblical principles to bring about inner healing.
    Barb Long

    • ashanam September 19, 2012 / 10:44 am

      Interesting approach. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Linda K July 18, 2013 / 10:40 am

    My apologies for being behind the curve in finding and responding to your post. I’m heartened to hear you’ve found a way to lessen the effects of your trauma. I’m still waiting to find a fix for mine.

    My primary traumatic event happened roughly 35 years ago (there were other, lesser events before and after which contributed to the severity). I was a young adult at the time and, through a false sense of bravado, opted not to seek professional help until many years later when it became apparent I really needed it. The delay rendered therapy completely ineffective and, in certain respects, made the stress markedly worse.

    Worse? Yes, worse. Not only did I have to relive everything by recounting it to the therapist, but I was shown it was my responsibility to heal myself (i.e. “unlearn” my responses as you put it). Therapy, for me, was a huge disappointment because I thought I was going to get help, not have the wind knocked out of me then be thrown back in the water to drown.

    The only relief I’ve been able to find from day-to-day, unexpected, harmless stimuli is simply reminding myself, “I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay.” That doesn’t mean I’m any less stressed, but at least it helps the stress subside sooner.

    • Ashana M July 18, 2013 / 10:54 am

      There are now almost 250 posts on this blog, so you’re hardly expected to read all of them. 🙂

      That is such a terrible and sad story. I hope there is something that eventually does make things better for you. That is no way to live, it seems.

      It’s been interesting because I can mark really “getting better” to a point when I gave up on expert help and at the same time became committed to finding out answers for myself. And what I started with was just trying to be with myself. To stop trying to have “healthier” habits or thinking patterns, stop trying to control how I felt or make things better, and just be with it. And that seemed to open a door.

      • Linda K July 18, 2013 / 11:40 am

        You are so right… trying to control how you feel doesn’t work. I don’t think it’s possible to control any feeling or emotion, be it happiness, sadness, fear or whatever.

        I’m struggling as much with the involuntary startle reflexes as I am with anything else. My grandson burst through the bedroom door one day and I literally (kid you not) screamed. /facepalm/

      • Ashana M July 18, 2013 / 1:40 pm

        Oh, that is rough. Good luck with that.

  5. Robyn January 19, 2015 / 5:14 pm

    Great post.

    I was a compulsive flincher. Whenever anyone moved quickly near me I would flinch. The ability to move quickly away from the unexpected, or at least make sure it was just a glancing blow, not a random full smack round the head, had served me pretty well as a kid. Obviously this was rather embarrassing, so as a late teen/young adult I taught myself to fake ‘relaxed body’ if someone leaned in for an unexpected pat on the shoulder, tossed something near me or whatever. This did become natural and I no longer flinch any more than anyone else. My sister never learned to do this. The trauma in our childhood is quite central to her identity and as such, despite years of therapy, she has found it much harder to move on. It hurts me to see her still 30 years later with our little girl response. It is hard work to unlearn your ‘scent of a lion’ but it is possible. Its not like I am totally ‘fixed’ but I am not afraid and don’t flinch when someone tries to hug me.

    Thank you for writing this post and sharing your knowledge on the subject to help others, and good luck with your journey.


    • Ashana M January 21, 2015 / 9:06 am

      Thank you so much. I am glad it was helpful to you.

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