March 5, 2018
How Trauma Changes the Brain
by Carrie Baatz
Many of us experience trauma at some point in our lives. Traumas are deeply distressing events that threaten our life, safety and well-being. They can be terrible events like natural disasters, shootings, rape, accidents, combat, or the loss of a loved one. They can also be ongoing, like the experience of abuse, extreme poverty or homelessness.
The impact is profound. Trauma elicits a sense of helplessness that may stay with a person for a long time. Some people carry a weight of shame or guilt from their experience and suffer from an eroded self-worth. Some survivors say that they have experienced what feels like emotional or spiritual death. Chronic health problems can occur as a result of extreme stress on the body.
Traumas can cause physical or psychological disabilities. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disability. It develops in people who experience symptoms with extreme intensity over a long time. Symptoms usually include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the trauma.
Everyone responds to trauma differently. Having support in the aftermath of trauma is one of the most important factors in determining the impact trauma will have on a person. A lack of support after trauma is often more damaging than the trauma itself.
How the Brain Adapts in Response to Trauma
Human beings are master adapters. Our biological systems are designed to change in response to whatever life throws at us.
Research in neuroscience shows that if we witness or experience trauma, our brains can actually take on a different structure. For people who develop PTSD, trauma causes a psychological injury. Certain areas of the brain become hyperactive, while others are less active, creating an imbalance.
Parts of the brain that are impacted by trauma:
The Amygdala enlarges, stimulating “fight or flight mode.”
Our emotional center in the brain, the amygdala “sounds the alarm” to the rest of the body when a threat is detected. When the amygdala is hyperactive, people may have a lower tolerance for stress and harder time controlling their emotions.
The Hippocampus, responsible for short-term memories, shrinks.
The Hippocampus helps us distinguish between past and present memories. People with PTSD can lose the ability to discriminate between past and present experience, which can result in flashbacks (re-living traumatic events). This can also cause short-term memory loss.
The Pre-frontal Cortex shrinks, making it harder to regulate thoughts and emotions.
Years after experiencing a trauma, a survivor may continue to feel frightened and highly alert, no matter what they are doing. They might have difficulty expressing what they are thinking and feeling, or get stuck in negative thinking patterns. They might carry extreme amounts of stress. This happens because the activity in their pre-frontal cortex has been disrupted.1
The pre-frontal cortex is responsible for emotional regulation, rational thought, language and conscious awareness. When impacted by trauma, this part of the brain is not able to regulate fear and other negative emotions as well, which causes fear, anxiety and stress responses when anything happens resembling their original trauma.
Because of the way our bodies adapt to trauma, the brain learns to perceive threats everywhere. For a survivor, this can mean that the world seems like a perpetually dangerous and frightening place. It can also damage a person’s ability to trust others and themselves.
Creating the Wellness we Want
Everyday interactions and tasks can be difficult to impossible for a person living with post-traumatic stress. The good news is that while the impact of trauma is destructive, recovery is possible. We can use our adaptability to change our brains in a positive direction in the aftermath of trauma.
Thankfully, there are tools that can help. Mindfulness, including practices like yoga, writing and meditation, is a tool you can use to train yourself to get unstuck from certain patterns of thinking. Two therapeutic tools known to effectively treat the impact of trauma are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).2
Amazingly, trauma survivors, over time, are able to heal the damaged psychological faculties and create new, positive pathways. Healing from trauma is a journey, one that cannot happen outside of a safe and secure environment. Supportive, accepting relationships are also essential.
At The Independence Center, we want to support you if you are a trauma survivor. We offer free peer support. We are excited to announce that we are launching a new Health Advocacy and Wellness training that is free and open to anyone who wants to take greater control over their health and wellness. If you are interested, contact us at 719-471-8181 to learn more.
2The Science of Trauma, Mindfulness and PTSD by Jennifer Wolkin