You might think of trauma as something that has more of an emotional and psychological impact with physical manifestations. However, the effect of trauma on the brain can actually change the physical structure. The result of changed brain chemistry and physical makeup can have lasting effects on behavior. One of the effects of trauma on the brain is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This is a mental health condition that is formed by a traumatized brain. The good news is that a traumatized brain can be healed with proper care.
How Does Trauma Affect The Brain?
When you experience a traumatic event, your brain function and chemistry change. Traumatic events include the following experiences:
• Sexual assault or abuse
• Physical assault or abuse
• Seeing or experiencing violence
• Death of a loved one
• Severe emotional stress
• Financial loss
• Natural disaster
• Being in a war zone
• Witnessing or being in a car accident
In fact, there isn’t really a standard definition of what constitutes a traumatic event. If the event takes a severe emotional or psychological toll on someone, it can be considered a traumatic event. The brain processes patterns in predictable ways. There are three areas of the brain that can be affected by traumatic experiences.
Trauma and the Brain
Different areas of your brain react differently in stressful situations. A traumatized brain is more likely to be reactive in a stressful situation rather than taking time to think.
The hippocampus is the brain area that controls memory and learning. In a traumatized brain, this area may become less active and even experience a reduction in size. As this area is responsible for processing new information, people under traumatic stress have difficulty interpreting new information.
The amygdala is the brain area that processes emotions. In a stressful situation, the amygdala’s role is to alert the brain to risk. This can be useful in a moment that could mean life or death. However, the amygdala can be triggered by a traumatized brain, which causes this alarm system to go off over and over.
The prefrontal cortex is the area that controls high-level critical thinking. When your brain enters the mode of fight or flight, the prefrontal cortex becomes largely inactive. The rest of the brain responds by releasing adrenaline and other stimulating chemicals. This causes you to be more reactive during a stressful situation versus thinking carefully.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Brain
People with PTSD feel the effects of a traumatized brain on a daily basis. Even when they’re not in stressful situations, their brain may respond as though it is. This means they might have a hard time feeling comfortable in nearly any type of situation. They may also struggle with intrusive thoughts and agitation. People with PTSD may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with the constant discomfort of a traumatized brain. Stress responses from PTSD can include the following:
• Difficulty remembering things
• High levels of fear and anxiety
• Difficulty relaxing or feeling comfortable
• Flashbacks or relived memories
• Difficulty talking or thinking about past traumatic events
• Other mental health issues like depression, compulsion or addiction among others
The effects of a traumatized brain on the body can be intense and severe. Some of these effects include the following:
• High blood pressure
• Stress eating
• Substance abuse
• Risky behavior
Your brain on trauma will show low activity in the thinking and emotion regulation areas, and the fear area of your brain will show high activity. That means that the more primitive areas of the brain take control and force you to live in a state of tension and fear.
How to Heal the Traumatized Brain
As previously mentioned, it is possible to heal a traumatized brain through proper treatment. It’s preferable to treat trauma as soon after the event as possible, but that can be difficult to do as many cases of trauma go undiagnosed for years. This is especially true for childhood trauma. A basic trauma treatment plan will usually incorporate elements of the following therapies:
• Cognitive-behavioral therapy
• Dialectical behavior therapy
• Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
• Medication-assisted treatment
Behavior therapy helps people to unpack traumatic memories and recognize the triggers that produce emotional responses. Your therapist will work with you to find healthy strategies to manage these triggers and thoughts. EMDR seeks to help the brain access traumatic memories and then properly process them. Finally, you may also be prescribed medication to reduce certain symptoms of a traumatized brain. Medication is always used alongside psychotherapy.
Doctor Howard Samuels is a Therapist in Los Angeles who specializes in the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as well as other mental health conditions and addiction.