Understanding Trauma: How Do Traumatic Experiences Impact the Brain?

Traumatic experiences can have wide-reaching, long-lasting effects on our lives.

Whether it be a childhood trauma, accident, assault, or abuse, our reactions to traumatic experiences often cause us to pay both an emotional and physical toll.

What Does Trauma Look Like?

After a traumatic experience, you may avoid people, places, or situations that trigger a memory or reaction. These preventative actions, though, keep you from living fully and making new meaningful memories.

Most people (let’s say after a car accident) will feel the effects of the trauma emotionally and physically for days or weeks afterward. They might be apprehensive to drive again, flinch at loud noises or sudden movements, and find themselves feeling achy and having difficulty sleeping.

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However, with time, these symptoms fade as the memories are stored and new, positive memories are formed. Step by step, their systems return to normal and they no longer have sensitive reactive tendencies.

Yet, for some, this processes never happens, and they develop something called post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

Why Is It Difficult For Some People to Move On From Traumatic Experiences?

Have you ever thought to yourself, “Just get over it!” 

Why is it that some can heal from their traumatic experiences sooner than others? We all want to recover from the crippling effects of trauma, but is it really all in our control?

The answer is: not entirely. That is because trauma affects your brain chemistry and functions, both of which are key components of emotional health.

To better understand your brain dealing with trauma, we must look at the three major areas of the brain that deal with trauma: hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex.

The Hippocampus

Think of your hippocampus as the filing cabinet of your brain. It forms and organizes memories before storing them away. In short, in the hippocampus short-term memory is converted into long-term memory.

Trauma can interrupt this action, preventing the processes of storing and converting memories. Because of this disruption, memories remain active and the distinction between past and current memories (short vs. long-term) is blurred.

Those who have experienced trauma often feel they are reliving the event in dreams and in waking because those memories have yet to be converted and stored.

The Amygdala

The amygdala is your response unit. During a traumatic experience, the amygdala becomes active and determines what actions to take in response to the threat.

Basically, it is your survival guide. It will tell the rest of your body to release stress hormones and turn on certain emotions. It will also determine what emotions and tone to embed each memory with before it is stored. For example, thinking of your fifth birthday may make you feel happy, while thinking of the time you choked on a piece of steak will make you feel afraid.

Traumatic experiences can send your amygdala into overdrive and create fear and nervousness in situations where they are not necessary.

The Prefrontal Cortex

Located in the front of your brain, the prefrontal cortex processes memories twofold: the left lobe brings forth individual memories, while the right lobe assigns themes and emotions to a series of memories.

Trauma can inhibit the ability of your prefrontal cortex to redirect inappropriate responses. It can also increase the blood flow which causes greater feelings of anger and sadness.

The Triangle of Trauma

These three areas of the brain are meant to work together to protect you from harm. Traumatic experiences turn up these processes.

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For some, it is difficult to shut off these areas after a trauma, resulting in PTSD. However, with the right trauma therapy plan and patience with yourself, your brain can return to a healthy state.

2018-09-05T22:44:11+00:00

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