TED Talk on Childhood Trauma

With a speciality of working with adult survivors of childhood trauma, I found this TED talk on childhood trauma to be particularly interesting and wanted to share it with you all. I would love to hear your responses! Please feel free to leave your comments below!



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Trauma “Re-Wires” Your Brain Part 3: Neocortex

Trauma “Re-Wires” Your Brain Part 1: The Amygdala

Trauma “Re-Wires” Your Brain Part 2: The Hippocampus

I hope everyone has had an enjoyable and relaxing independence day! As we remember those amazing men and women who did and continually do fight for our freedom, this week I will be addressing the third and final part of this blog series and how it connects to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As PTSD is a common diagnosis among our armed forces, it seems appropriate. However, it is important to remember that this diagnosis does not only affect those who have experienced war, PTSD is most simply described as a condition developed when the brain has experienced or witnessed what is, or perceived to be, a threat or trauma.

In previous blogs I have discussed 2 of the 3 main pathways of how the brain processes information: The amygdala (part of the reptilian brain) and the hippocampus (part of the mammalian brain). The last and final component is the neocortex or the “human brain”.

HUman Brain

Brain evolution

This part of the brain is used primarily for logic and reasoning or rational thinking processes. The cortex does not fully develop until we are in our late 20’s and helps us with understanding and thinking through consequences. It adds some understanding as to why teenagers make impulsive decisions without thinking about the consequences; their ability to do so is not fully developed. This coupled with their increase in independence can lead to them putting themselves in some “interesting” situations.


Now that you are familiar with the 3 main sections of the brain, lets talk about how information is processed. An individual who does not have what we will call a “trauma brain” will enter a crowded room and try to find people with whom they can connect. Information is first processed or filtered through the hippocampus, tapping into their emotional reactions to others and encouraging connection. The information will then travel to the prefrontal cortex and lastly the amygdala to evaluate for potential dangers. This route or “pathway” encourages individuals to connect with others. 


If an individual has experienced a large amount of trauma over a sustained period of time it can actually change how the brain processes information. Our ability to adapt, as I discussed in part 1, is essential to our survival and evolution, however this adaptation is what creates what I call the “trauma brain”. If an individual has experienced multiple traumas over a sustained amount of time, the brain begins to interpret that as the norm and essentially “re-wires” itself to be on alert at all times. This is the hyper vigilance often observed in individuals suffering from PTSD. If an individual with a trauma brain walks into a crowded room, rather than looking for way to connect they will first scan the room for threats. When the brain is in a state of hyper-arousal the prefrontal cortex goes “offline” allowing for the more primal responses of the amygdala to take over. So when a trauma brain individual walks into a crowded room they first process information through the amygdala, looking for potential threats, next the information travels to the cortex and LASTLY the hippocampus. This path effectively reduces the opportunity for connection and re-enforces the pathway of trauma.

I think I have a “trauma brain” can I fix it??

The good news is, recent research has discovered that the brain continues to grow, develop and change for the duration of our life, so YES it can be treated. The bad news is, it took a long time to wire your brain this way and will take a while to re-wire it as well. One of the ways to go through this process is by long-term talk therapy. Talk therapy allows you the opportunity to establish a connection with an individual who can provide a safe, healthy and reliable interaction/relationship over a sustained period of time. This consistency and reliability allows your brain to become accustomed to the feeling of safety, even when you are allowing yourself to be vulnerable about who you are, warts and all. A counselor can also help provide tools with how to handle uncomfortable feelings and work toward a healthier pathway for your brain.

Fun Fact 

It takes approximately 6 hours after a traumatic event occurs for it to consolidate into a memory. There is evidence to suggest that if you play tetris during the 6 hours following the event, you can lessen PTSD  symptoms! For more information click here.

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Trauma “Re-wires” Your Brain Part 2: The Hippocampus

(Trauma “Re-Wires” Your Brain Part 1: The Amygdala) 

In part 1 I began this trauma discussion with the oldest and most primal part of the brain, commonly known as the reptilian brain. It is responsible for survival (fight, flight or freeze). In part 2 I will tell you a little about the next portion of the brain to evolve and can be visualized as the second layer of the brain (going inside out). This second layer is commonly known as “the Mammalian Brain” as it is only found in mammals. The mammalian brain gives us the ability to have memories, emotions, and judgements.


Within the mammalian brain there is a section called the “Hippocampus”.  The hippocampus helps us to make sense of emotions (empathy) and place them in a timeline. We are born with the amygdala fully developed, providing us with the basic techniques for survival. The hippocampus, however, does not fully develop until around ages 2-3. This prevents infants from being able to place their experiences on any kind of timeline, rendering them incapable of developing conscious memory until the hippocampus is  fully formed.  It is important to note that conscious or explicit memory is different from unconscious or implicit memory.

“Explicit memory involves facts, descriptions, and operations that are based on thought; implicit memory involves procedures and internal states that are automatic”

(Rothschild, B. (2000). Development, Memory, and Brain. In The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma treatment. New York, New York: Norton.)

An example of implicit memory is knowing how to ride a bike. It is a memory held in the body not in your conscious mind. Implicit memory is able to be stored well before ages 2-3, re-affirming the importance of forming healthy attachments at a young age.


Returning once again to trauma, one of the functions of the hippocampus is empathy. With individuals who do not have what is called “trauma brain”, the hippocampus is the first place information is processed, encouraging connection with others. If you are an individual who has a larger amygdala due to multiple traumatic experiences over a period of time, the hippocampus is the last place you process information. For those with a brain wired to expect trauma, due to the continual exposure, all information is processed through the amygdala first. These are the individuals who are always expecting the floor to be pulled out from under them.

In summary, most individuals process information and other external stimuli through the hippocampus first, taking emotions and feelings into account and looking for ways to make connections. The individuals whose brain has been wired to expect trauma have a larger amygdala and process information through the amygdala first. These people’s brains are trained to assume everything is a threat first and foremost. To conclude this series, the next blog will speak about the most recently developed part of the brain, the human brain, and what role it plays.

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Help Central Texas Relief Efforts

I apologize for the gap in posts. Living in Texas, the recent floods, in addition to a few other hurdles have prevented me from getting back to writing. With that in mind, I would like to dedicate this post to the victims of the central Texas floods and the amazing rescue workers who have worked around the clock since the rain and tornadoes began to help save and rebuild lives.

I was fortunate enough to have experienced minimal damage, however I have seen the destruction suffered by others this memorial weekend. Many individuals lost their houses, cars, businesses and in some cases their loved ones. In addition to keeping them in your thoughts, if you are able to assist in the re-building of these communities, please do so. Every little bit helps and I know it would be greatly appreciated by many. To find out how Click Here.





I will continue with Part 2: Trauma “Re-wires” the Brain next week.

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Trauma “Re-Wires” Your Brain, Part 1: The Amygdala

The human body, particularly the brain, is an amazing thing. It has the ability to adapt to our own personal needs. The weather, for instance, those who live in climates with particularly harsh winters develop an amount of resistance to it; allowing the conditions to be more tolerable, “thicker blood” I have heard it called. Another example would be the jumping sensation in your stomach when you are driving and see a police car up ahead. Your body has been conditioned to react to this visual stimuli and, most likely, step on the brake pedal regardless of whether or not you are speeding . Similarly, the brain does the same.

As I read more and more about the newest studies in neuroscience, I never seize to be in awe of the way the brain adapts and develops throughout our entire lives. Studies that are being done, at this moment, as I type, are continually strengthening the theory that our brain operates similarly to a muscle. The parts of the brain that are used/needed more often in individuals are actually visibly larger. This leads me to trauma and how our brain helps us to handle particularly stressful circumstances.


Let me first begin by explaining, every person on the planet experiences trauma and each individual varies in what circumstances their body will perceive as being traumatic. When thinking about the term “trauma” we are often led to think about extremes like war, abuse, death of a loved one or car accidents. While these are indeed traumatic experiences, trauma can be as simple as a mom trying to get her toddler to keep up in the grocery store by telling them, “ok I am leaving, bye”. This is a technique that I often hear. While this may be very effective it is interesting to think what the child might be thinking or feeling: “My mom is leaving me all alone and I have no one to take care of me”. A child may go as far as to think that their life is in danger. This is certainly not to say that parents who have used this technique are bad parents or have scarred their kids for life, but when putting it in the child’s perspective it is easy to see how this experience can be traumatizing to a child who relies on their parent or caregiver for their survival.

In keeping with the muscle analogy, each traumatic experience, thought, or feeling is like doing one more “bicep” curl to the part of the brain that processes trauma, known as the amygdala.


The aforementioned child, for instance, the belief that they are being “left to survive on their own” is like one bicep curl strengthening the amygdala. As anyone who has tried any type of muscle-building routines, one bicep curl does not a buff arm make! (Though sometimes we wish it would!) It takes multiple repetitions over long periods of time. This is the same with the brain. Individuals who have gone through long, sustained periods of multiple traumas in their lives have a notably larger amygdala.



The amygdala is also known as “the reptilian brain”, as it is present in every animal on the planet, even those as simple as a reptile. The primary focus of your amygdala is survival. The amygdala controls the “fight, flight or freeze” response. When we perceive our life to be threatened we have an impulse to either fight back against the threat, runaway from the threat (physically or mentally) or freeze in the hopes that the threat will not attack (similar to how a possum will pretend to be dead to help prevent an attack).

When the amygdala is in control, it inhibits or stops the part of the brain that allows us to see logic or judge situations with any feeling; making basic functioning difficult and can result in what we know as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but I will speak more about that in a later post. However, knowing this, an individual who has consistently experienced traumatizing  events will have done many “bicep curls” and built up their amygdala. Understanding that process is the first step in understanding how the brain can be “re-wired” over time. The good news is – just as the brain can be wired to respond to trauma, the opposite is also true. Over time, the brain can also be trained to tone down the fight, flight or freeze response and learn to rely more on the Pre-frontal Cortex (logic) and the Hippocampus (feeling), strengthening those and improving their ability to handle everyday life without being as hyper vigilant. Come back next week for part 2 of how trauma effects and ultimately “re-wires” the brain.

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Calming Anger

Much like anxiety, learning to calm your anger on a consistent basis is a skill that may take many years of counseling to perfect. However, I do find that, with many of my clients, by simply employing some simple techniques their emotional tolerance level can be increased.

The thing about anger, and any intense emotion actually, is that once you are past a certain point it is physically impossible to rein it in. This is explained by how the brain works. When the brain is in a heightened state of emotion, the part that is in charge of logic (called the pre-frontal cortex) goes “off-line” and is in-accessible to the individual. This is a helpful reaction when in a life or death situation as it allows for “survival mode” to take precedence over logic. However, when it is not life or death, this lack of logic and reasoning can be very destructive.


Therefore, the key is to learn to recognize the emotion, in this case anger, the very moment you begin to sense it coming on in order to intervene prior to the point when your ability to reason is no longer possible! That “point of no return” is different for every individual, however, the more curious you are about how your body responds to anger (i.e: burning in your stomach, rapid heart beat, teeth clenching, face getting how, numbness in hands and feet, hands making fists etc) the better you will be able to recognize and respond to these early signs.


Below is a list of techniques I have compiled that can be used the exact moment you BEGIN to feel your anger building. If you are able to intervene with these at that point, your tolerance level will increase and your chances at “keeping your cool” will be greater. However, it is important to note that this has to be a very conscious effort. No one can MAKE you learn calm your anger if you choose not to.

Calming Anger:

  1. Take Deep Breaths – Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. The exhalation must be longer than the inhalation. This simple act that can be done anywhere send a message to your brain to calm down.
  2. Scribble – Grab a pencil or crayon and scribble as hard and fast as you can to expend your building anger.


  1. Rip a phone book – No one uses them and everyone has them. Ripping it in half is nearly impossible and ripping out each page is physically satisfying. Its the release of the energy that helps to relieve the anger and this also allows for the satisfaction of being destructive without causing any actual harm.

4. STOP.THINK.GO – When in the midst of a confrontation:

STOP before you react

THINK about your options and the consequences of each

GO with the option that has the best outcome.


5. Opposite Action – This works for a variety of difficult emotions. The idea is that when you act on initial urges of intense feelings you often end up in a cyclical emotional deterioration that offers little help, therefore do the opposite of the urge. This chart shows that main 4 emotions people wish to intervene on.

Anger Attack/run towards Avoid/ if you can’t avoid be civil
Sadness/depression Withdraw Engage with others
Anxiety/Fear Run Away Go Towards
Shame/guilt Stop the behavior Continue the behavior

Opposite action only works when the situation does not justify the emotion.

  • Fear is justified when there is a threat to health, life, or well-being
  • Guilt is justified when it goes against you morals or values. It is not justified when it involves self-care activities and the urge is often to stop – so continue!

6. Physical (but safe) Release – Often times the urge of anger is a physical outlet. By knowing if you are susceptible to this ahead of time, you are able to mentally note a few options of physical energy release that be used in lieu of destructive impulses. Ie: find an easily accessible punching bag, go for a run, scream as loud as you can and for as long as you want into a pillow, punch a pillow, do jumping jacks until exhausted, ripping a phone book, squeeze a stress ball as hard as you can etc.



  1. Follow the 3 Rules to Reacting:
  1. Say what you are feeling
  2. What caused the feeling
  3. What you need to help alleviate the feeling

Ie: I am really angry because you promised you would go to XY event with me today, in the future could you please follow through with promises.

Difficult feelings are often indications of a need not being met ot a boundary being crossed. When you give a voice to the your feelings and needs it often helps the brain and body to release and/pr work through the emotion or feeling.

  1.  Put the situation in perspective with the 5 Fives

Will this matter in: 5 minutes? 5 Hours? 5 Days? 5 Months? 5 Years?

9.Play-doh (circle, Square) – Put a small ball of play-doh in one hand and make it into a cube then back to a ball and back to a cube etc. without looking at it. Using only the one hand until your anger or overwhelming feeling has dissipated. It is difficult to focus on the cube/square of the play-doh and the emotion at the same time.

10. Write in a Journal – This goes back to giving the difficult feelings a voice

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Hello everyone!

I wanted to use this opportunity to let you know that I will be starting a parenting group for parents with young children. Please read the information below and I hope to hear from you soon! Spaces are limited so sign up now!!

Group for Parents with Young Children

This group will cover many topics, as well as, provide support from other group members.

Topics may include:

  • How to handle tantrums
  • Behavior modification techniques
  • Natural and logical consequences
  • Self-care
  • Work life balance
  • Developmental milestones
  • The child experience
  • Anything else that may arise within the group

These topics are not concrete, as I would like to incorporate information that is specifically catered to the needs of the members within the group.

In addition to the education piece, there will be time for members to share their own personal difficulties and stories, allowing for an exchange of information, support, joy and collective problem solving within the group. I will hold one group during the day and one in the evening to accommodate for varying schedules.

Parenting is HARD, but you don’t have to travel this path alone. My desire for this group is to bring parents together to help one another and add some pages to that handbook they NEVER gave you when you came home from the hospital!  🙂

$50/ session

Mondays 11:00 AM -12:30 PM


Tuesdays 7:00 PM – 8:30 PM

Space is very limited so please sign up soon!

For more information and/or to reserve your spot please contact me:

Ashley Errico, MA, LPC-Intern, NCC



To learn more about me and how I work please feel free to visit my website and blog at www.ashleyerrico.com



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Calming Anxiety

Finding the source of anxiety and working through it to lessen the symptoms, overall, can take a while to work through. However, when working with clients who struggle with anxiety, I find the first concern is finding techniques to help them deal with the symptoms in the moment they occur. Anxiety attacks always seem to occur when you have the least amount of time to deal with them.

While I would recommend counseling to help with a more permanent ways to self-regulate, I thought this week I would provide you with a list of helpful “in the moment” techniques to use.

1. Breathing

Breath in for 3 seconds, hold the breath for 3 seconds, and breath out for 5 seconds (continue practicing and over time work up to an out breath of 10 or 15 seconds)

2. Write in a Journal

3. Color!

It doesn’t just calm kids! Coloring has meditative qualities to it, allowing you to focus and calm your mind. While any old coloring book will do, adult coloring books are becoming increasingly popular – many of which include mandalas.


      The design of the mandala is to be visually appealing so as to     absorb the mind in such a way that chattering thoughts cease…a mandala can be seen as hypnotic, letting the creative hemisphere of our mind run a little more free while our analytical mind takes a little nap. (http://www.whats-your-sign.com/meaning-of-mandala.html)

4. Meditate

There are many different ways to meditate, try a variety to see what works best for you. There is a multitude of really good websites and apps that are created to help you in this process. (some of my favorite iPhone apps are Mindfulness Daily and Brainwave)

5. Anything Lavender Scented 

The smell of lavender has a calming effect on many individuals.


6. Distract Yourself

The sooner you can identify and intervene on your heightening anxiety the better! (This is something you can develop an improve on with repetition)Talk with friends, sing along to the radio, read a book, listen to upbeat music, watch a happy movie etc.

7. Walk away from the situation 

In a particularly stressful situation it is often helpful (and more time efficient) to walk away from it for a bit and then return to it later. You will be more productive when you allow yourself time away from it.

8. Find a way to laugh

Laughter releases endorphins (happy chemicals) in your brain.


9. Exercise

Fun exercise is generally more effective than exercise that you “force” yourself to do and becomes a chore.

10. Take a nap

Without adequate sleep all of our stressors become heightened and we are more easily effected by them. It’s the reason young children have a “melt down” when they are tired.

For more information about anxiety take a moment to look at my Anxiety page, or if you would like to meet to discuss ways to further alleviate your anxiety please feel free to contact me to set up an appointment!

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What is Your Parenting Style?

Having had extensive experience working with a variety of families, I found it interesting how the parenting styles varied so dramatically. Recognizing this, I thought it might be helpful to give a brief overview of the varying styles and how they affect the child’s development.

Parenting Styles

There are 4 basic types of parenting styles:

  • Authoritarian
  • Authoritative
  • Permissive
  • Ignoring/ Uninvolved


Authoritarian parents tend to be demanding and rigid, using harsh punishment to try and change behavior.

  • “You better be on green (or blue or get straight A’s) or else you will be sorry!”
  • “Because I said so!”
  • “It’s my way or the highway”

This style generally leads to children who are obedient
and proficient, but they rank lower in happiness, social
competence and self-esteem.



These parents maintain a reasonable amount of control, but do it in a collaborative way based on mutual respect. Reasonable rules and consequences, and are supportive of their children.

  • “ I know you enjoy spending time with your friends, however it is important that you do well in school. We want you to get a good education so that you can move on to get a good job when you grow-up. If your grades start to drop, then we will do your homework together AS SOON AS you get home to ensure you understand it, if after that is done there is still time then you may go play with your friends”

This style tends to result in children who are happy, capable and successful.

Authoritative 2


These parents think they can’t stand conflict, so they give in because it is easier. These parents generally have few rules, and they are under involved in their children’s lives.

  • “ok honey, whatever you want”

This parenting style often results in children who rank low in happiness and self-regulation. These children are more likely to experience problems with authority and tend to perform poorly in school.



These parents tend to put their own needs first and provide children with little parental guidance.

  • “Mommy and daddy are going out, there are fish sticks in the freezer, you are 6 now, you can figure it out. Bye!”

These children rank lowest across all life domains. They tend to lack self-control, have low self-esteem and are less competent than their peers.


It is important to remember, at times I am sure every parent can identify with all of these styles. It is important, as parents, that you realize there is not perfect way of doing this. However, it seems to be most advantageous when parents make an effort to balance attention and discipline, while always keeping the mutual respect between parent and child at the forefront of your mind. When approaching with that mind set, you will still make mistakes, but you will also have the insight to make adjustments along the way that best supports your family.

Authoritative 1


Cherry, K. (2013). Parenting Styles:The Four Styles of Parenting. Retrieved from http://psychology.about.com/od/developmentalpsychology/a/parenting-style.htm

Vernon, A. (2009). Counseling Children and Adolescents. (4th ed.). Denver, CO: Love publishing Company. Pg. 449.

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We Only Have 2 Hands! Women’s Struggle with Impossible Expectations.

I recently partook in a conversation with a large group of fellow practitioners that seemed to focus on societal expectations of women.  While women are making great strides in the workforce and the rate of female breadwinners is rising steadily, it seems the societal expectations of women have not changed. Generally, women are expected to be the caregivers or nurturers in relationships. However, in the same respect, there is no room for them to care for themselves.


Growing up I used to be amazed at how little my mother would get sick, her continual explanation was, “I don’t have time to be sick”. As a child I never quite understood that response, however looking back now, sadly she was right. My father is wonderful, but when it came to us kids and the house, mom was the one who kept things running(Granted we did enjoy the times dad was in charge – fruit roll-ups and chips for lunch! YES! hahaha).

As an adult, and now mental health practitioner,  I am in awe of the strength my mom had to have had all those years to literally WILL herself not to get sick because, she simply “did not have time”. I imagine, this is the case in most households, for most women. Women do not have one job – they have MANY! Women (both in the workforce and at home) tend to be chefs, taxi drivers, nurses, house-keepers, caregivers, tutors, therapists, hair stylists, financial advisors, cheerleaders, coaches, brownie troop leaders, classroom moms, personal shoppers and a multitude of other things on an “on-call” basis and  all at once, with very little reimbursement.  Women are consistently called upon to help others, but allow little, to no, time or appreciation for themselves.  As more women enter the workforce more and more is expected of them and less and less time is allotted for it.


It is with all this in mind that I challenge women to begin to MAKE time for themselves in the same way that they always seem to MAKE time for someone else. If we do not make time to take care of ourselves then we become incapable of taking care of those we love. This thought immediately brings to mind the safety instructions at the beginning of airplane flights, “put on your own mask before assisting others” – why? Because, what happens if you pass out before you get someone else’s mask on? Then you are BOTH in trouble as is anyone else you would have been able to assist. In that respect, self-care is MORE important than caring for others. I do not care if you work full-time, part-time or are a stay at home mom or homemaker – what you do on a daily basis is AMAZING and it is time you recognized your own worth and took care of yourself too. This does not mean it has to be “instead” it means “ALSO”.


Additionally, part of self-care is knowing when to ask for help and then (this is the part women tend to fall short on) LET people help. I recently had a client who was feeling overwhelmed with her high stress job and household responsibilities as a wife and mother. During the course of the conversation it became apparent that she had a difficult time accepting help, having feelings of inadequacy. I have realized that asking for help often takes more strength then trying to do it all yourself.

Societal expectations tend to impress upon women that we should be able to work, be a mother, be a wife, clean the house, run errands, the list goes on and on AND never take a break. It’s as if we are expected to be a human version of the energizer bunny. The key word here is, we are HUMAN. There seems to be this huge amount of guilt associated with taking time out for yourself or asking for help. No wonder many women have a difficult time with their own self-worth! They are expecting themselves to do the impossible and do so all alone.  I am here to tell you it is OK , even essential, for you to ask for help and take a break whether it be an hour or a full day. Rather than feeling guilty, maybe look at it as a source of pride that you are able to recognize your own limits, take care of yourself and demonstrate to others (including your kids) how to do this and that you deserve to be taken care of too.

The biggest rebuke I tend to get is – I don’t have time! Well, if that is true then it means it is time for you to ask for help or give something up. Taking care of yourself NEEDS to be as important as grocery shopping or doing laundry because if you don’t then you will not be able to do those things either. It is time we all take a stand against societal expectations and say WE ARE IMPORTANT TO! I NEED TO TAKE CARE OF ME TOO!

Below is an image that I recently came across and have found it helpful in remembering not only to pay attention to self-care but ALSO learning HOW to care for yourself. It is important that you pay attention to each of the 6 categories in order for you to be the most happy, productive and helpful!

Self-Care Wheel