How Trauma Changes the Brain

Trauma can create severe psychological scars that prevent the victim from enjoying a full, happy life. Trauma victims may experience flashbacks, nightmares, sleep disturbances, and problems with memory and concentration. Even the slightest reminder of the event can result in a terrifying re-living of the traumatic experience.

Victims of trauma may also experience guilt, shame, edginess, exhaustion and feelings of numbness or disconnection from others.

Trauma isn’t something that you can just “get over.” For some people, trauma may last a few weeks or months, but for others, symptoms may last a lifetime and may be associated with feelings of helplessness, isolation, depression, personality disorders and addiction.

According to Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, trauma affects at least eight percent of Americans at some point in their lives.

While we often think trauma or PTSD is associated with combat, trauma-inducing experiences may include any highly disturbing event such as a car accident, natural disaster, bullying, breakup of a relationship, death of a loved one, severe illness, sexual abuse or domestic violence.

Three Significant Brain Changes

Researchers have determined that while trauma changes the structure and function of the brain in numerous ways, three important areas are significantly affected – the hippocampus, amygdala and medial prefrontal cortex.

The Hippocampus

The hippocampus is the region of the brain responsible for memories. It helps us sort through new and old memories, and then determine where in the brain those memories should be stored so they can be retrieved, if needed.

Unfortunately, trauma interferes with the process. Traumatized individuals lose the ability to distinguish old memories from current events, thus fragments of memories remain stuck in the hippocampus instead of being distributed to other areas. Even old memories feel new and as a result, the brain remains in high alert and the victim sees danger around every corner. This explains why a scene from a movie may trigger severe flashbacks for a trauma victim.

Excess stress hormones released in the brain can cause the hippocampus to be underdeveloped or shrunken. However, this damage to the hippocampus isn’t necessarily permanent.

The Amygdala

The amygdala, often known as the brain’s “fear center,” is an almond-sized mass located deep within the brain. This part of the brain is primitive. It deals with raw emotions and has absolutely nothing to do with cognition or reasoning. The amygdala is associated with human survival and helps keep us safe by triggering release of stress hormones that elicit a fight or flight response, thus helping us avoid danger.

Researchers think that trauma causes the amygdala to become overactive, which can cause victims to experience tremendous stress when faced with stimuli that reminds them of the trauma, even when the stimuli isn’t directly associated with the event.

If the amygdala releases excessive amounts of stress hormones, it causes higher levels of stress that result in release of even more hormones. As a result, the trauma victim is stuck on constant high alert.

Trauma can actually result in enlargement of the amygdala. However, like the hippocampus, this alteration in size can be reversed.

Medial Prefrontal Cortex

The medial prefrontal cortex is the front, outermost part of brain. This is a sophisticated area that helps us manage our emotions, assess danger, control impulses and consider the best response. Unlike the amygdala, this area is associated with reasonable, rational thinking.

However, problems arise when the brain is flooded with stress hormones and a traumatized person loses the ability to determine when dangers are real. It becomes difficult to control and manage emotions.

Healing the Brain

Scientists believe that effects of trauma can be resolved, and that the brain can be successfully rewired. However, healing from trauma nearly always requires the assistance of skilled therapists or counselors. Attempting to resolve trauma alone rarely works, and attempting to “bury” or hide the problem tends to make matters much worse, as healing requires the victim to fully process the painful emotions.

While counseling and medications are often highly effective, trauma and PTSD are complicated issues and there is no one-size-fits-all treatment. For some, hypnosis or mindfulness meditation may help relieve the grip of trauma. Others are helped by attending a support group for survivors of trauma.

Many people benefit from drug and alcohol treatment or rehab – especially when drugs and alcohol have been used to self-medicate symptoms of trauma.

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