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“Applying the Brakes” with Traumatized Children

December 10, 2009

There are many ways to effectively help children express traumatic experiences. Play, drawing, movement, and of course, talk therapies are all good approaches. But what happens when an activity, intervention, or counseling session calls forth a powerful sensory memory, causing the child to become overtly anxious, tearful, hyperaroused, frightened, or speechless? We know now that these are important signs of autonomic over-activation — that stress hormones are pouring into the body and the sympathetic nervous system is in high gear. For helping professionals, these reactions may be as frightening to them as they are to the children who experience them.

On February 27th, 2010, National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children will welcome international expert Babette Rothschild, founder of Somatic Trauma Therapy, to its four-day seminar in San Antonio, TX. This is an exciting opportunity for trauma specialists to learn exactly what to do when confronted with the more difficult symptoms of acute and chronic trauma including hyperarousal and reexperiencing. A practitioner since 1976, Rothschild proposes that when stress hormones are pouring into the body that it is time to simply calm the client down. It is at this juncture that we need to not only know when to “apply the brakes,” but also to know what techniques to use.

Babette Rothschild describes applying the brakes as follows: “My logic stems from the observation that both driving and trauma therapy involve controlling something that can easily go out of control. It is not a good idea to proceed with directly addressing a traumatic incident — accelerating trauma processes in the mind and body — unless both therapist and client know how to find and apply the brakes: stop the process if it becomes too uncomfortable or destabilizing….the body is often missed in trauma treatment. On the other hand, some body-approaches neglect the importance of psychological integration. Neither aspect can be neglected. Trauma treatment must regard the whole person and integrate trauma’s impact on both body and mind” (2009).

This wisdom is based on what we now know about how the brain responds to traumatic events. In brief, one key component in the brain’s reaction to trauma is the hippocampus. This region is extremely susceptible to stress hormones that are released when the body feels threatened and a cascade of stress hormones can be stimulated by an actual event or recall of an upsetting memory at any time. If stress hormones reach a high level, they diminish the activity of the hippocampus, causing it to become non-functional. The hippocampal region is key in resolving and integrating incidents and memories; when it is compromised, the hippocampus ceases to provide important information to the cortex [the thinking part of the brain], making rational thought difficult. Suddenly, the cortex may not recognize that a traumatic event is over or no longer present, causing the individual to feel overwhelmed, confused, anxious, or fearful.

According to Rothschild, keeping the hippocampus functioning is important to successful therapy. But how is this accomplished? In sum, by keeping stress hormone levels low so that the nervous system does not go into over drive. And that is why it is critical that every trauma specialist understand how to help children “apply the brakes” during intervention. Applying the appropriate techniques not only stabilizes emotional responses, it is actually helping the hippocampus to return to its proper function as soon as possible when over-activation occurs.

Want to learn more? The National Institute for Trauma and Loss is offering its three core certification courses at this San Antonio training as well as a special presentation by Babette Rothschild on how the “body remembers trauma” and what you can do to help traumatized individuals. You do not have to register for all four courses, but if you attend all four you can obtain your Level-1 Trauma and Loss Specialist Certification by simply completing one TLC online 6-hour course and the Level-1 online exam.

Be well,

Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, LPAT, LPCC


Rothschild, B. (2009). Babette Rothschild Website. Retrieved at

Rothschild, B. (2003). The body remembers casebook: Unifying methods and models in the treatment of trauma and PTSD. NY: Norton.

Rothschild, B. (2000). The body remembers: The psychophysiology of trauma and trauma treatment. NY: Norton.

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