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How Trauma Affects the Brain

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, 8% of Americans will be affected by posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some time in their lives, and more are affected by forms of trauma outside the bounds of PTSD. Despite the numbers, for many of us, trauma remains an unclear concept, with uncertainty as to how it affects our daily lives. A lack of understanding about what constitutes trauma may prevent survivors from seeking life-changing help. To aid in understanding this important subject, today we hone in on the short and long-term impact that trauma can have on our brains.

It is important to first define trauma. The American Psychological Association states that:

“Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer-term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives. Psychologists can help these individuals find constructive ways of managing their emotions.”

It is important to recognize that trauma and trauma-based thought patterns and behaviors can be caused by events that may seem less impactful than a natural disaster, or terrible accident when observed at a surface level. This does not make an individual experience that occurred outside of the above any less valid. Remember, trauma is a normal human response to abnormal events. Trauma can be caused by a plethora of things, like events in childhood, experiences later in life, or generational trauma-based thinking handed down to us. Trauma can also be caused by one-time, multiple, or long-lasting repetitive events.

When left unaddressed the cognitive, physical, emotional and spiritual effects of trauma on survivors and families (individual trauma) and communities (communal trauma) can cause lifelong problems. Whilst trauma affects everyone differently common signs can include:

  • Intense or unpredictable feelings

  • Memory loss or flashbacks

  • Changes to thoughts and behavior patterns

  • Sensitivity to environmental factors

  • Strained interpersonal relationships

  • Stress-related physical symptoms

How Trauma Affects the Brain

In order to understand how trauma affects the brain, we must first conduct a quick tour of the brain itself. There are two primitive parts of the human brain that run on automatic, known as the reptilian brain and limbic system. The reptilian brain maintains our basic bodily functions, such as keeping our hearts beating, and the limbic system deals with fear and pleasure. The third part of our brain (the neocortex) is much more sophisticated and functions on a conscious level. The neocortex helps facilitates logic, imagination, planning, and control. But it is slower than the primitive parts of our brains.

During a traumatic or extremely stressful event, the amygdala (found in the limbic system) senses danger and signals that we need to go into survival mode. During survival mode, the primitive parts of our brain override the conscious parts. Meaning that our brain and body focus only on the functions critical to our immediate survival. For example, the day to day role of the hippocampus is to store and organize our memories. But in times of danger, this function is suspended and instead the hippocampus pumps cortisol (a protective measure to stop us from feeling pain) into our bodies so that we can focus on survival...Explaining why we experience alterations in memory following exposure to traumatic events.

How Trauma Affects the Brain

Studies show us that the changes to our brain (including the hippocampus, amygdala, and the medial prefrontal cortex) can last long after the traumatic experience or event. Highlighting why many trauma survivors can find it difficult to understand their gut responses and behavioral reactions to external events or stimuli commonly known as triggers. Due to the nature of our brain, we can not always distinguish between historic events and the “here and now.” Our brain can become stuck in survival mode, preventing us from accessing (and therefore healing) traumatic memories to protect us from feeling pain. This kind of response is our survival instinct overwhelming the rational brain as it did in the first instance of trauma.

There is life after trauma because our hippocampus has the ability for regeneration. Neuroplasticity allows our brains to form and reorganize neural pathways so that we can continue to learn, or heal our brains after physical, spiritual or emotional injury. With appropriate therapy, we can find ourselves empowered enough to heal from and move past trauma. Our self-healing journey begins by first identifying the origins of our pain. When we re-engage with our feelings in a safe space we can access crucial facts about our trauma.

Therapy can then provide us with the tools to gradually change harmful connections created in response to trauma and create positive and lasting life changes. At Georgetown Counseling and Wellness we provide a compassionate space for you to tell your story and fully acknowledge your reality, utilizing proven treatment techniques. Call us to take the first step to awaken the healing process within and recover from past trauma.

If you would like to know more about trauma recovery or other services offered at Georgetown Counseling and Wellness, please don’t hesitate to reach out on (512) 400-4247.

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