Love Song for Your Cerebellum

Traumatic Stress and Your Brain

OK, you probably don’t spend that much time contemplating your cerebellum. But I can confidently assure you that it is a triumph of neural development. Although only 1/8th of the size of your clunky cerebrum, it contains more than half of the neurons in your brain, and is one of the more “plastic” (e.g., malleable) regions as well.

For decades, most neuroscientists have believed the cerebellum to have a fairly limited, although crucial, function. It has been considered a region that is implicated in the performance of bodily tasks, allowing us to walk rhythmically, grasp smoothly, and blink our eyelids at will. In simplest terms, the cerebellum allows us to hit the target we are aiming for.

In the past twenty years or so, however, a competing body of literature (initiated largely by Jeremy Schmahmann) has proposed that the role of the cerebellum extends into the domains of cognition and affect, too. In other words, the cerebellum may allow us to hit emotional targets as well as physical targets.

How is this related to traumatic stress? For one thing, the evidence suggests that traumatic stress (including emotional abuse and harsh physical discipline at home) impact the size, connectivity, and function of the cerebellum. This is complemented by both research and clinical evidence, which suggests that people who have experienced trauma experience rapid and dramatic shifts in emotional states. In other words, it can be tough for folks who have experienced traumatic stressors to hit an emotional “target.”

If you have post-traumatic stress disorder, or other forms of emotional dysregulation (such as depression, anxiety, or substance use difficulties) due to early life adversity, you may notice that you feel either “all the way on” (with racing thoughts and elevated heart rate) or “all the way off” (sluggish and disconnected) at different times, without spending much time in the middle. This is a very tough way to live, and can make it extremely difficult to feel engaged in your life with joy and satisfaction. You deserve to have joy and satisfaction in your life, and a trauma-informed therapist should be able to help you find some emotional middle ground. That person might not know they’re helping you change your cerebellar function, but that may be exactly what they’re doing!

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