When Things Get Out of Hand: Trauma and the Triune Brain

Watercolor portraitIn recent decades, neuroscience and psychotherapy have joined forces in seeking to understand the biological bases of behavior. The brain is a complex organ, and as we study its function and adaptations we create a window of understanding into how our brains, bodies, and psyches respond to traumatic stimuli.

Have you ever heard of the triune brain? This is a simplified, three-part model of the brain, as originally explained by Dr. Daniel Siegel, that helps us to understand the neurological development of our species and clarifies both the reactions to and treatment of trauma.

Try this with me: Hold your dominant hand out in front of you. Have your palm facing you and look at your wrist and the base of your palm. We will call this your brain stem. (Stay with me now; we’ll explore what that means below.)

Now fold your thumb in toward your palm, as if you are signaling the number four with your extended fingers. This thumb will be your limbic brain. Lastly, cover your thumb with those four fingers, wrapping them over the thumb. This third part, the fingers, we’ll call the prefrontal cortex.

Look at that: your brain is in your hands! You now have a portable brain model that you can carry with you and use to share this information with others. Now let’s explore the function of each of these three parts of the brain.

Your brain stem, located at the base of your neck at the top of your spinal cord, is the most primitive part of the brain. It governs the functions that keep you alive—your breathing, heart rate, and basic physiological functioning. Fight-or-flight responses involve this area in that they are automatic (not consciously chosen) responses to stress and traumatic situations.

Your limbic brain is where emotional responses register. When you get angry, reactive, or experience intense emotion, this area of the brain tends to have more activity. Scientists can actually see this on functional MRI brain scans.

Often, when trauma occurs we are captivated by the activity in the brain stem and limbic brain and our access to executive function feels difficult, if not impossible. Knowing this, we can make it a goal to reengage the prefrontal cortex in a helpful way.

Lastly, we come to your prefrontal cortex. This is the frontal lobe of the brain, that area just behind the skin and bone of your forehead. This is the area of executive function, the place in the brain where we make conscious decisions.

You may be wondering: how does all of this relate to trauma? Let’s start with what happens to these parts of the brain when something traumatic occurs. I mentioned earlier that the fight-or-flight response is not a conscious choice, but a biological reaction initiated in the brain stem area. Your body experiences the impulse to fight or flee (or freeze, as it may be). This trauma response feels, and is, out of your conscious control.

The limbic brain may hold intense emotion related to the traumatic experience—particularly when the trauma involves a relationship with another person. You may feel sad, angry, overwhelmed, or helpless.

Now here is the catch—and an opportunity for deep learning. Often, when trauma occurs we are captivated by the activity in the brain stem and limbic brain and our access to executive function feels difficult, if not impossible. Knowing this, we can make it a goal to reengage the prefrontal cortex in a helpful way. Here are some examples of how to practice this:

  • Counting down from 10 to one when feeling angry.
  • Looking around the room for objects of a certain color when feeling pulled into a traumatic memory.
  • Bringing the focus of attention to your forehead, even by placing your thumb there to bring your attention to this area of your brain.

There are some therapeutic techniques of grounding and orienting that can help you to cope with some of the overwhelming emotions associated with trauma. Try them with small things in life—counting down from 10 to one while in traffic, looking for orange objects when you find yourself pulled into a past memory, or focusing on the center of your forehead as a point of meditation. These practices can help build your ability to access the prefrontal cortex during upsetting and even traumatic moments.

Remember, your brain is in your hands! You can look at this hand model any time by creating a fist with your thumb tucked in, then asking yourself, “What part of the brain am I living in?” This simple question begins to engage your prefrontal cortex. We know that our brains are resilient and respond to our thought patterns and habits, so the more you exercise your brain in this way, the stronger the neural connection can become. Cheers to you and your triune brain!


Siegel, D. J. (2010). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York: Bantam Books.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lisa Danylchuk, EdM, LMFT, E-RYT, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Jas

    April 10th, 2015 at 10:38 AM

    Great tips and explanations for those of us with little knowledge of the science of the brain. Quite useful!

  • Tess

    April 10th, 2015 at 12:10 PM

    Brilliant read I’m amazing thank you for sharing I’m going try the exercise

  • Brian

    April 11th, 2015 at 6:23 AM

    Easy practical helpful and therapeutic! Thanks.

  • Laura

    April 11th, 2015 at 4:53 PM

    Thanks for this user friendly model. I will definitely be sharing this information with colleagues and clients.

  • tatum

    April 13th, 2015 at 5:40 AM

    I love it when there are suggestions for real life things that we can do to make a difference in how we behave and react even in situations where trauma has caused many of he issues. I think that this alone is so thought provoking and shows just how responsive our body and brain are both to intervention that we can undertake on our own, simple things that we can do to relax and even hopefully heal.

  • Jessie S.

    April 14th, 2015 at 5:23 AM

    This also show just how resilient and resourceful the human mind can be, there is just this ability to transform and heal that we must be willing to learn and take advantage of.

  • Clement M

    June 21st, 2015 at 9:02 PM

    Great article. I’m going to use it with my college Psychology students. You are applying Gestalt Therapy (Fritz Perls):
    “Stay in the Here and Now and You don’t have anxiety.” This is what makes Mindfullness and Mediatation work; you are in the here and now. Also, you are using an idea from Transactional Analylsis (TA): “Activate the Adult Ego State” (which is the prefrontal cortex and executive functions). This also works with children (and others) who are having a tantrum. Thanks for this article.

  • Jaynice

    June 22nd, 2015 at 8:20 AM

    Visual and Tactile expressions with Vocalisations are THE Most Powerful combinations to healing .
    We are Sensual Beings, with an Intellectual Mind who is a BETTER Servant than a Master. Thank You so much for teaching us this Xx

  • Joanna

    June 22nd, 2015 at 3:53 PM

    Interesting article to read and something useful to learn and remember.

  • Rose

    September 15th, 2015 at 2:33 PM

    Great article and information. I will share it with colleagues.

  • Chris

    December 26th, 2015 at 1:40 PM

    Great article. I am a sensorimotor art therapist, and I use this concept a lot with my clients, it helps them to develop a sense of choice for themselves too, something I believe is important when they start to feel overwhelmed with their own circumstances. Keeping the psycho education simple is for everyone’s benefit.

  • Janet

    December 27th, 2015 at 11:29 AM

    Thank you so much, wonderful information to help and understand, what I did not know.

  • Tosha

    February 4th, 2016 at 9:39 PM

    Thank you for sharing this information is helpful to have a better understanding

  • Bill

    August 2nd, 2016 at 12:54 PM

    Very good piece.

  • Lynda K

    August 2nd, 2016 at 7:19 PM

    Wonderful article! Now if I could just find a picture of a fist like the one used in your analogy I would be happy. I need visual aids to help me when my PTSD is triggered.

  • Lisa Danylchuk

    August 3rd, 2016 at 9:58 AM

    Hi Lynda, try this link for a visual! youtube.com/watch?v=gm9CIJ74Oxw

  • Geoffrey

    February 18th, 2017 at 12:45 PM

    A nicely written introduction for applied neuroscience being a practical adjunct to therapy and how much impact we can have on directing our brain’s reactions and responses.
    (Lisa – I’ve always heard the Triune brain model being attributed to Dr. Paul MacLean, originally conceived back in the 1960s’s.)

  • Paul B S.

    May 27th, 2019 at 1:48 PM

    The triune brain theory was not originally explained by Siegel but by Paul MacLean

  • Kimberly

    April 11th, 2022 at 2:19 AM

    I really liked how the brain and its functions were described using the hand, it makes it much easier to understand. I will be practicing some of the coping skills such as counting down from 10 to 1 in traffic, etc. Great video!

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