The Biological Effects of Trauma on the Brain

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What exactly defines trauma? In essence, trauma is characterized by a life event that has left a lasting impression on your brain. But the difference is that this impression is not a positive one. It holds memories that are haunting, scarring and sometimes completely inescapable. 

When most people think of trauma they associate it with the likes of childhood abuse, physical abuse, assault, exposure to violence, and near-death experiences. While these experiences may result in traumatic impacts on the brain, trauma is not black and white. Outwardly, it does not look the same for everyone. But internally, the damage is done.

Learn more about the effects of trauma on the brain and understand how to come to terms with PTSD…

What Does Trauma Look Like?

The physical scars associated with traumatic events heal with time. But emotional wounds take far longer to heal, if ever.

The effects of trauma on the brain and your overall psyche have the power to stop your life dead in its tracks. The condition is widely known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It can completely overtake every aspect of your life, changing the structure and overall function of the brain. 

PTSD is classified as a mental health condition and can develop after a recent traumatic event or after an event that took place decades ago. Generally, the trauma involves a sense of threat in terms of abuse, violence, pain, or near-death experience. 

PTSD is characterized by the recall of a traumatic event through flashbacks, nightmares, and emotional instability. Depression, severe anxiety, anger, aggression, hyper-arousal, and distressing thoughts are also very common. 

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The Anatomy of the Brain 

The human brain is comprised of three main areas: the brain stem, the limbic region, and the cortex. Each area of the brain is responsible for its own set of functions. Although, these three areas must work in unison to live out a normal day-to-day life with measured responses.

The brain stem is the first part of the brain that is developed in the womb, therefore it’s the ”oldest”. This region controls arousal and our automatic responses as humans, i.e. survival mode reactions.  

The limbic region evolves next and includes areas such as the amygdala and the hippocampus. It’s responsible for our expression, emotional reactions, decision-making and memory recall. 

Finally, the brain’s cortex develops last and is responsible for cognition and thinking. In essence, the cortex allows us to reflect, and concentrate.

So, how do these areas relate to traumatic events?

The Brain Stem and Amygdala 

Any perceived threat is registered in the most primitive parts of the brain – the brain stem. The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped structure found deep within the temporal lobe. It is triggered and our natural fight, flight or freeze reactions kick in. The amygdala also helps to activate the sympathetic nervous system which helps us deal with threats. 

The Hippocampus

After this, the hippocampus quickly processes information about the threat. With the support of the amygdala, memories associated with this traumatic event are then safely stored away. This is where memories are coded. Time and spatial contexts are added to memories and they are imprinted in our brains forever.

The Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC)

The pre-frontal cortex is located in the frontal lobe of the brain, just behind the forehead. It helps us to consciously process a threat after our survival mode has been triggered by the amygdala. The cortex helps us to associate feelings and emotions with traumatic events and helps us plan how we will respond. The cortex also has the ability to ”switch off” our survival mode responses after we have assessed there is no threat. In a nutshell, the PFC helps us determine the meaning or significance of specific events.

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Understanding The Effects of Trauma on the Brain 

When your brain detects a threat, the amygdala sends a multitude of signals to different parts of the brain. This stimulates the release of hormones such as adrenaline, and other substances like norepinephrine and glucose. If the stressful situation continues, signals are sent to the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. From here, the stress hormone, cortisol, is released into the body.  

Meanwhile, the pre-frontal cortex consciously assesses the situation, trying to deactivate the flight or fight response. In other words, it works overtime to try and keep you calm. 

But how do these responses work in the brains of those suffering from long-term PTSD? 

Studies have shown that people with PTSD have hyper-reactive amygdalas as well as an under-active pre-frontal cortex. In short, the amygdala reacts a little too strongly, and the PFC is hindered in its ability to keep you calm. 

1. Hyperarousal

With an overactive amygdala, your brain stimulates the release of excess norepinephrine. This can lead to hyper-arousal, hyper-vigilance, sleep disruption, insomnia, and constant edginess. Hyperarousal can be triggered by almost anything that resembles trauma or shock in those with PTSD.  

2. Anger and Impulsivity

An overactive amygdala means that those with PTSD are always on the alert. They are ”armed and ready” for quick action in the face of a perceived threat- even if there is none. This leads to impulsive behavior. In addition to this, your motor behavior is unregulated due to an underactive PFC. Ultimately, this leads to reactive anger which is difficult to control.  

3. Increased Fear and Negative Emotion

Most people suffering from PTSD will tell you that they are constantly hounded by negative thoughts and emotions. They may find it difficult to enjoy simple, day-to-day tasks or even feel regular emotions. This is a result of a hyperactive amygdala, which is over-communicating with the insula. This is an area of the brain responsible for emotional awareness. An underactive PFC also means you’re unable to regulate their emotions when needed.

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Treatments For Trauma

Some of the most successful treatments for those with PTSD include psychotherapies that focus on and enhance the capabilities of the pre-frontal cortex.

Mindfulness interventions or retreats hosted over a 10-12 week period are also known to decrease the hyperactivity of the amygdala. However, actively confronting your trauma is a long and slow process and takes a great amount of support and introspection. 

Ultimately, one of the best things a person can do is to find a mental health professional who can help them process and understand their trauma through therapy. 

Find the Help You Need with Solara Mental Health 

Now that you understand the effects of trauma on the brain a little better, allow Solara Mental Health to help you work through the trauma that is dictating your life. 

Based in San Diego, we offer well-versed health professionals who specialize in a range of disorders, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, psychotic disorders and more. Get in touch today and reclaim your life… 

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