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Dr. Tonemah provides insight about trauma’s impact on the brain

HOLLYWOOD — Dr. Darryl Tonemah, a Native health psychologist who has been leading health seminars on Seminole reservations in recent months, returned to the Hollywood health complex March 27 to provide insight on understanding the effects trauma has on the human brain.

According to numerous studies, trauma impacts three areas of the brain: the prefrontal cortex also referred to as the “Thinking Center;” the anterior cingulate cortex also known as the “Emotion Regulation Center;” and the amygdala, which is called the “Fear Center.”

All three of these parts of the brain are altered when trauma occurs. The “Thinking Center” and “Emotion Regulation Center” become underactive while the “Fear Center” becomes overactive.

Dr. Darryl Tonemah has been leading seminars in recent months on Seminole reservations, including Hollywood on March 27. (Photo Derrick Tiger)

Tonemah said the brain registers memories as having a beginning, middle and end. However, when it is introduced to trauma the brain only accounts when it started, when it occurred, but never processes it as having an ending.

“The level of trauma is determined by the level of activation,” Tonemah said. “And all that is relative to the person. There’s not just one thing because each of us are put together differently, your brain is put together differently and things that happen prenatally and genetically all determine how big of an event this is to that part of the brain.”

Tonemah also stated that the brain is most susceptible to trauma in childhood.

“When you come into the world the brain is only 17 percent done developing, so what it does is it says ‘How is the world? And how do I need to adjust?’” Tonemah said. “And if the world is alcoholic, if the world is chaotic, if the world is abusive, if the world is cold, if the world is non-nurturing, if the world is distant, then the brain adjusts to how it needs to survive in that world.”
One factor to take into account, according to Tonemah, is that when trauma occurs it is not stored in the “logic” center of the brain, so a person suffering from traumatic stress may not respond to logical questions. Tonemah – who has a degree in psychology – believes talk therapy to be less effective when dealing with trauma so he approaches it as more of a physiological process.

“What I’m concerned about is how are you feeling right now?” Tonemah said. “The event is over. When somebody is talking to me they’re not going to be able to go back and change the event. What their most concerned about is how it feels in them. If I had a picture of someone who hit me 25 years ago but it means nothing to me—if it has no weight in me–that’s reconciliation.

The memory will still be there so the question is, ‘how much weight does it have?’”

A physical action he suggests for managing overwhelming traumatic stress is basic controlled breathing which affects the stress center of the brain, reducing anxiety and increasing alertness.

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