Trauma: Going Limbic Shuts Down Cognition

Trauma: Going limbic

Clients come to me with high states of anxiety. Sometimes they say: “Yesterday, I got so anxious and I don’t even know why! It was such a weird experience. I was enjoying time with colleagues after work and suddenly I felt like running away. I almost had nausea. I don’t get it.”

What I call “Going Limbic” is one of the direct consequences of trauma. As sophisticated human beings, we operate with different “brains”. You are using your neo-cortex or rational thinking brain to read these pages. If I use words like pain, suffering or distress, you could start to feel a slight activation in your belly and these words might trigger you. Your limbic or emotional brain comes on board with your primitive brain, the more ancestral “first” brain. Because of your history of trauma, you can’t regulate once you have been triggered. It becomes difficult to come back to baseline and your body stays “up” much longer than in a trauma-free person. As your body continues to sense danger and the activation grows, symptoms of anger and rage or anxiety, fear and panic take over and you are ready to fight or flee. You can no longer modulate emotion and you start spinning out of control.

When a triggering event occurs, no matter how rational the individual is, emotions will trigger behavior. For trauma survivors, the limbic system essentially hijacks and overrides the executive function, which is the rational brain or the decision-making computer. Your thinking brain simply goes off-line. Your limbic system acts like a bully. It wants to protect you because it senses danger and a healthy fight or flight response could save your life. But right now, it is taking over. Primitive urges become the basis for decision-making and behavior. The logical part of you has left the scene. Raw fear shuts down cognition. The only way to regulate is to:


Ask the executive committee (your rational brain): Have I been endangered or triggered? Remember to bring your thinking back on board: your body says you are having a crisis, but there is no crisis right now. The house is not on fire, no one is dying, there is no tiger chasing you down the alley. You are just having a good time with colleagues after work. In other words: trust your brain and quiet down the gut. Put your brain back in charge.

fog valleyGoing limbic is a catastrophic misinterpretation of bodily sensations.


This could mean that you interrupt an activity that does not feel safe by going for a walk. You might also change the TV channel and stay away from a violent movie, or ending a conversation that feels too demanding. Instead of reaching for the tool that hurts you (painkillers, alcohol, porn), grab the healthy tool that saves you. You then learn to modify maladaptive behaviors by choosing healthier alternatives like restoring a regulating breath, grounding and orienting, self-soothing, reciting positive affirmations or mantras, grabbing your favorite pet, calling a friend to feel comforted etc…there are many tools available that we can learn to use in session and that you can take home.

Disclaimer: It is useless to say that if you walk a dark alley at night and feel a twinge in your gut you will listen to that “gut feeling” and run for your life if it is telling you the situation is unsafe. When real danger is present, always listen to your inner compass.

Please enjoy these photos to regulate.

Some of this material has been partially or at times fully quoted/reprinted from Jerry Boriskin’s PTSD and Addiction book (Hazelden) and used or reproduced with his permission.