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Trauma Brain: How Our Survival Instincts Keep Us Stuck

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

Written By: Shenandoah Chefalo

As Russia prepared troops along the border of Ukraine, we all held our breath, anticipating the invasion. Now, as the Ukraine-Russia War unfolds, many of us are forced to merely witness the atrocities, powerless to change the outcome. We must recognize what is happening for us, and for so many others. To help support the people of Ukraine, please consider donating to Voices of Children.

Using a Trauma-Informed Lens to Approach the Ukraine Russia War

Consider how the Ukraine-Russia War has impacted you over the past week. Can you recall the heaviness in your heart as you thought of the citizens of Ukraine fleeing for their lives?

Did you become lost in thoughts and worries? Were there fears of nuclear war?

The Ukraine-Russia War is not just water-cooler talk. This is not simply a current event to brush over casually.

Rather, it is a series of tragic and traumatizing incidents that affect real people—and not just people in Ukraine.

Your employees may have friends or family in Ukraine. They may have trauma that the war is bringing up. Or they may simply be more affected than others regarding the horrific occurrences unfolding.

Even if you don’t have a personal connection to the Ukraine-Russia War, you can probably relate to the generalized feeling of instability and insecurity that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought on.

Many people throughout the world are experiencing what is known as trauma brain. And this survival brain doesn’t go away when it’s time to clock in, log on, and get to work.

Trauma-Informed Leadership and Survival Brain

During turbulent times, we need support. And trauma-informed leadership prioritizes compassion and care so that employees can rely on their professional communities for stability and support no matter how uncertain times are.

If you want to be a trauma-informed leader, you must know what trauma brain is—and how to identify it.

What is trauma brain?

Trauma brain refers to a state of mind. When we experience trauma, our brain responds in ways it believes will protect us. The most common experience of trauma brain is a fight or flight response.

Whether someone experiences severe anxiety or pulls up defense mechanisms in times of stress, their trauma brain shuts down functions that it deems “non-essential.”

When someone is in a trauma brain mindset, they are careful to identify dangers in the immediate environment and respond quickly to protect themselves from those immediate dangers. So, looking ahead and reflecting on the consequences of their trauma response is extremely difficult.

It’s important to remember that trauma brain is not a choice, and it’s not something that most people can simply “turn off.”

This survival mode of operating often pushes people into what’s known as a reenactment triangle. Originally tagged as a “drama triangle” by Stephen Karpman nearly 40 years ago, this is a valuable tool for trauma-informed leaders to shift their perspectives.

What is a reenactment triangle?

Also sometimes referred to as a trauma triangle, the reenactment triangle labels three distinct roles that are filled during a trauma response, and they often unconsciously bleed into peoples’ everyday lives.

The three roles of the reenactment triangle are the victim, the rescuer, and the persecutor.

The Victim

The victim views themselves as powerless—even in situations under their control. Their attitude is marked by dejection and shame, and they will deny their ability to affect change.

Victims struggle with decision making, problem solving, experiencing pleasure, and understanding how their behaviors impact their lives.

They must rely on a rescuer or savior in times of need. If no one is there to save them, the result is not self-sufficiency. It is self-pity.

The Rescuer

The rescuer requires a role of caretaking to feel good about themselves. That doesn’t sound too bad—until you realize rescuers neglect their own needs in favor of caring for others.

People who fall into this role are often overworked and resentful of those who accept their help. Despite their ill will, it’s common for a rescuer to actively prevent a victim from escaping the triangle, whether it is through enabling them to be dependent or manipulating the victim with guilt tactics.

Rescuers often struggle to take responsibility for their needs and grapple with guilt when there is no one who needs saving.

The Persecutor

The persecutor is a strict extremist who is quick to place blame on others. They are often overly critical, controlling, rigid, angry, and even threatening.

Persecutors do not reflect nor take responsibility. Rather, they require a scapegoat to place blame on to avoid becoming the victim themselves. Persecutors are highly judgmental, although their criticism is rarely constructive.

Applying the reenactment triangle to everyday life

When someone undergoes trauma, they often take on one or more of these roles. You might recognize these roles in people you know, or you may be able to reflect and see each role in yourself at times.

It’s most common for us to bounce around these roles in times of stress.

No matter which role is taken or how it unfolds in the person’s life, this mindset is marked by blaming, entitlement, and helplessness.

The reenactment triangle places traumatized individuals inside a complex cycle that is difficult—but not impossible—to break.

Escaping the Reenactment Triangle

If you want to learn how to escape the reenactment triangle, you must reframe the situation.

To combat a mindset of helplessness, entitlement, and blame, you must introduce accountability, responsibility, and capability.

This method requires self-awareness and support—and any good trauma-informed leader knows that the work must be done in yourself before you can teach your team how to achieve the same results.

To avoid this pitfall in the workplace, reflect. Then, change your mindset:

· Avoid the temptation to place blame.

· Own your actions and your feelings.

· Kindly hold yourself and others accountable for their actions.

· Accept responsibility for creating positive change.

· Challenge the idea that anyone owes you anything.

· Acknowledge everyone’s capacity for change.

· Empower others

As we work to reframe the "role" that we are playing in a reenactment, take note that we are trying to move the Victim to Driver, the Rescuer to Supporter and the Persecutor to Coach. This can happen in a variety of ways, but the key is breaking the cycle and empowering yourself and others to switch and reframe your mindsets.

Even as I type this, I understand how difficult recognizing these symptoms can be, especially in times of high stress. Once recognized though it allows us the ability to take the intentional steps to reframe, in order to break the reenactment triangle. It's not easy, but with practice and dedication you can rewrite the script of being caught in trauma brain.

To learn more tools and more about reenactments, you might want to check out our Trauma-Informed Masterclass that begins in April.



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