Our Brains Are Primed For Survival: Our Talk With Ilyse Kennedy

"Trauma is a physiological response to real or perceived threats. We label an event as trauma due to the physiological response enacted during the event, not the actual event. What registers as trauma for one person may not register as trauma for someone else."

Ilyse Kennedy, LPC, LMFT, PMH-C is a psychotherapist and owner of Moving Parts Psychotherapy located in Austin, TX. She works with adults, children, and adolescents who have experienced trauma and specializes in perinatal mental health as well. She began her career working with Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, where she was a therapist for girls with an incarcerated mother. This sparked her passion for working with trauma and attachment. As someone with lived experience of mental health struggles and PTSD, Ilyse has a passion for advocacy, de-stigmatization, and social justice work within the mental health field. She hopes to make survivors feel heard, cared for, and see the possibilities for healing as she has been able to in her own therapy journey.

SWY: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your experiences with trauma?

IK: My name is Ilyse Kennedy. I’m a Licensed Professional Counselor, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and Certified Perinatal Mental Health Professional. I own a private practice, Moving Parts Psychotherapy in Austin, TX where I work with adults, children, and teens most of whom have experienced trauma. Prior to owning my private practice, I worked at Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, where I was a therapist to girls whose mothers are or were incarcerated. This is where my experience and interest in trauma began as these were all kids who experienced the trauma of having an incarcerated parent.

SWY: What inspired you to become a registered psychotherapist?

IK: I had the privilege of beginning therapy at 10 years old. Therapy was so important to me in my childhood. Having someone to delight in me each week felt validating and at certain points in my teenage years, truly helped me to survive. I experienced intense depression and anxiety. After graduating from college, I experienced a series of traumas along with working at an extremely stressful job. Life became debilitating—I was struggling to function beyond work. I decided to return to therapy. That therapist helped me name what I had experienced as trauma but after moving to Austin and seeing a new therapist, I recognized the bad experience I’d had in therapy. Each week, it felt as though the therapist didn’t know what to do with me or how to help me. After moving to Austin, I recognized I no longer wanted to work for whiny white men who didn’t need my help, I wanted to help those who needed it. I wanted to become the therapist I needed following my series of traumas and learn from that therapist’s mistakes.

SWY: On your Instagram account @movingpartspsychotherapy, you often speak about trauma - In your opinion, what is trauma?

IK: Trauma is a physiological response to real or perceived threats. We label an event as trauma due to the physiological response enacted during the event, not the actual event. What registers as trauma for one person may not register as trauma for someone else.

SWY: How do you think being a survivor changed your view and understanding of trauma? How has this helped you in your practices?

IK: I have felt the debilitating effects of trauma within my own body. I have seen how it shaped and controlled my life. I have also been to the other side. While what I experienced won’t leave me, it no longer affects me in the way it once did. I truly believe you can heal from trauma because I have. I am able to share with my clients that I have reached the other side (though I’ll be a lifer in therapy). It also greatly affects the way I practice. I come from a de-pathologizing place and am extremely open with clients about the treatment plan and diagnosis, when appropriate. Instead of asking “what’s wrong with you?” and searching for a diagnosis, I ask “what happened to you and what is happening within you now?”

SWY: Can you elaborate more on the role that our nervous system plays when we experience trauma?

IK: When the body launches into a trauma response, executive functioning in the brain shuts down and the nervous system takes over, launching the body into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn to aid in survival. Because the thinking part of the brain is shut down, the memory of the trauma is stored implicitly (emotions and body sensation) rather than explicitly (as detailed memory). When a trigger occurs through sensory information, the nervous system launches into a survival response as if the original event is happening again.

SWY: You talk about how our brains are primed for survival - What do you mean by this and how does this impact the way we experience trauma and deal with it in our everyday lives?

IK: When a threat occurs, the brain stem or reptilian brain takes over. This is the oldest part of our brain. When cavewomen came up against a lion, they would fight the lion for meat, freeze and play dead, or run away. When we come up against threat, our body responds to that threat in the same way it might respond to coming up against a lion. The thinking part of our brain shuts down and launches us into survival mode. Understanding this about the brain can help trauma survivors understand that their brain was doing the best it could to protect them. It shifts some of the guilt that might be experienced in regretting how the threat was responded to.

SWY: What role do you believe therapy plays in aiding us to break the cycles of intergenerational trauma and abuse?

IK: I believe therapy is a place to understand the history of intergenerational trauma and abuse in a space where safety is offered and if one works with a therapist who specializes in trauma and is trained in various trauma modalities, it is a place to heal. Therapy allows the survivor to reprocess the trauma without re-experiencing it. I also want to acknowledge that therapy is a privilege we don’t all have access too. It also may not feel like the best route to take and that is okay! Support groups, peer support, and other resources can be effective in the journey toward trauma recovery.

We want to thank Ilyse for sharing with us her experience in therapy and the physiological effects of trauma on the brain. Make sure to check out her Instagram and her website for more information about the practices that she offers.


Starts With Youth would like to thank #RisingYouth, TakingITGlobal, Canada Service Corps and the Government of Canada for their generosity and support. With their help, we will continue working to address intergenerational trauma and childhood abuse, creating a positive change in our community.