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How Does Trauma Affect the Brain?

Trauma affect the BrainHave you experienced trauma in the past? 

Was it the result of an accident? Have you been the victim of violence and abuse: sexual, psychological, or physical, or all of them? Were you traumatized by a natural disaster? Have you ever experienced the high stresses of combat and war?

All of these traumatic experiences cause actual damage to our brain, especially if we don’t receive proper help to aid us in dealing and processing these experiences.

The Parts of the Brain and Their Functions

Our brain exists primarily to protect us, by storing our past experiences as memories. These memories serve as guides to positive actions in the future, or as warnings to protect us from potentially harmful situations we may encounter.

The brain consists of basically three areas, or parts:

  • The amygdala, or lizard brain, at the base of the skull. It is the most primitive section of our brain, and deals solely with basic survival instincts. It controls our body’s reactions to fear: our breathing, hunger, and thirst. The amygdala takes control of the mind during traumatic events, and triggers our fight, flight, freeze, or fawn reactions
  • The hippocampus, or mammalian brain (sometimes called the monkey brain) aids us in processing emotions. It also helps us to distinguish between past and present experiences.
  • The prefrontal cortex or neomammalian brain is the part of the brain responsible for sensory processing, learning, memory, decision making, and complex problem solving.

How Trauma Affects the Brain

Traumatic events trigger the sympathetic nervous system, which in turn releases stress hormones to activate our fight, flight, freeze, or fawn reactions. These reactions are natural and nearly automatic.

As the threat passes, the parasympathetic system takes over again and we can relax into our normal mental and physical stasis. But too much trauma, especially if it is sustained over time, can trap us in survival mode where the sympathetic nervous system runs all, or nearly all, the time.

This can cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As a result, we may feel intense anxiety, fear, and find it difficult to manage our emotions. We may experience altered moods such as blame, shame, negativity. We may become hyper-vigilant, always being on alert for dangers and threats. Or we might avoid all possible trauma-related input.

Repeated or extreme trauma activates the amygdala. Fear reactions become stronger. When this happens too often, it becomes difficult to distinguish between past threats and present threats, or real threats and imagined ones.

We may feel all or a mix of the following symptoms:

  • Inability to sleep well
  • Unable to calm down
  • Chronic stress
  • Find ourselves more irritable with others and ourselves
  • Elevated fear and anxiety

Damage to the Brain Itself

Trauma’s effects aren’t simply psychological. It can cause physical changes to the brain itself. If trauma is not treated, it can actually shrink the hippocampus. As it shrinks, we become unable to discern the past from the present. We may suffer from increased panic attacks and live in a constant state of fear, anxiety and hypervigilance.

Trauma also can affect the function of our prefrontal cortex. If this happens, we become less able to learn new things, manage our emotions, or solve problems. Logical thought becomes more difficult. This means we have even more trouble controlling our fear.

As our brain struggles to function normally, the symptoms increase. Along with the symptoms above, we may also suffer from flashbacks to traumatic events in the past. Nightmares can be more frequent and more intense. We might suffer from loss of memory. It may become harder to concentrate on our work and duties at home. It can become very difficult to make good decisions. We might suffer from physical fatigue. All of this may lead to increased difficulty in communicating with those around us. This can put a strain on our relationships, precisely when we need them the most.

Can We Heal Our Brains?

The good news is, yes, we can. The brain is surprisingly resilient to trauma, even to physical injury. It has an uncanny ability to rewire itself over time, once we give it the healing it needs. But in order to do that, we need to address the trauma we’ve experienced, and realize that it takes time and patience to accomplish it. 

For more information on this topic, here are some good articles:

3 Ways Emotional Trauma Physically Changes the Brain

How Trauma Changes the Brain 

Traumatic Stress: Effects on the Brain

How Does Trauma Affect the Brain? 

Seek Professional Help

No matter the trauma you’ve experienced in your life, the counselors and therapists at RDU Counseling for Change have the expertise and experience to help you work through it and get you on the right track again.

We offer all kinds of mental health counseling, for individuals, couples, and families either in person or via a telehealth appointment.

Contact us today and let’s get started!

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