Most of us are relatively familiar with how trauma’s impact manifests outwardly: fear, feeling disconnected from others, nightmares or flashbacks, profound changes in the way we think about the world. However, we are often less familiar with the physical impact that trauma can have on how our brains function and operate.
One of the most important ways that the brain is impacted by trauma takes place in the hippocampus, which has a significant role in memory and learning. In those suffering from PTSD, the hippocampus shows decreased function when faced with memories or outward reminders of their traumatic event. This means that it is harder for the brain to re-learn that certain situations can be safe, which can be very aggravating for those working towards healing.
Another area of the brain that can be impacted by trauma is the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain stem that controls fight-or-flight responses and strong emotions. Trauma can cause the amygdala to be overactive, leading to feeling tense, on-edge, or afraid more than before it experienced trauma. Many who suffer from trauma can often feel like their bodies are tense, making it tough to relax, and the over-activity of the amygdala could be to blame.
The prefrontal cortex is the portion of the brain that deals with logical thinking and higher-order processing. When faced with reminders of the trauma, the prefrontal cortex of people living with PTSD may exhibit decreased functioning. This decrease in prefrontal activity explains why so many struggling with PTSD feel frustrated when faced with a triggering event, thought, or situation and cannot think as clearly or as logically as they would like.
These brain changes combined lead to the heightened fear and difficulty calming down that those with PTSD experience. Understanding the neurobiological changes can help people with PTSD extend themselves self-compassion and grace. There is also hope: these changes do not have to be permanent. The brain is incredibly adaptive. Healing is possible. The science of treating trauma has led to a variety of effective treatment strategies over the years. Understanding the biology of trauma has contributed to medical and counseling innovations that prove to be very impactful to the healing of trauma wounds. Research shows that although medication can be beneficial, trauma survivors are often helped by counselors or therapists specifically trained in treating trauma and its effects. The brain can re-learn safety and security when attended to by a caring and knowledgeable professional. If you or someone you know has experienced trauma, reach out. Our therapists create safe spaces with our clients to re-learn and heal from trauma together.