Everyone endures potentially traumatic events. Unfortunately, it’s an inevitable part of life. When these events create trauma, quite often, your life can be dramatically altered. Of course, at the moment of trauma, there is pain on multiple levels.
However, it rarely ends there. Trauma impacts every aspect of daily functioning. From mundane tasks to deep pondering, trauma colors the experience. This is true because trauma changes your brain. It shifts how you perceive possible real and imagined threats.
A casual comment heard years after the traumatic events can provoke an extreme overreaction. Such a shift occurs due to changes in three parts of your brain.
How Does Trauma Affect the Brain?
In the Amygdala
This tiny structure is charged with controlling your memories, emotions, and survival instincts. You’ve probably heard of the “fight-or-flight” response. Well, that automatic reaction originates in the amygdala.
Under normal conditions, your amygdala can save your life. After being shaped by trauma, it can become the source of dysfunction. An overactive amygdala keeps you stuck in a state of hyper-vigilance. This directly affects the second part we are going to discuss.
In the Hippocampus
When your brain productively stores emotional, long-term memories, you can thank the hippocampus. However, it is susceptible to problems when the amygdala thinks you are at constant risk. This results in steady flooding of stress hormones. Such chemicals are believed to shrink the hippocampus, which alters how you store memories.
Post-trauma, you might be storing only memory fragments—with an emphasis on vivid events. This can lead to two hallmark trauma symptoms:
- Flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts
- Being easily triggered by anything that reminds you of the original event
In the Prefrontal Cortex
The prefrontal cortex, or PFC, is what keeps you organized. It’s the part of the brain that regulates emotions to create a healthy balance with skills like decision-making. The PFC is what tells the amygdala to calm down with the fight-or-flight stuff.
In those who have experienced trauma, the PFC is less capable of controlling emotions like fear. Without the PFC acting as a voice of reason of sorts, the amygdala can keep the stress hormones flowing and, in turn, shrink the hippocampus. The cycle continues from there.
Why Does All This Happen?
Your brain identifies what you’ve been through and has become hyper-committed to protecting you. In this state, you lose your ability to differentiate between minor annoyances and life-threatening situations. This is the root of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and it’s exhausting.
People living with unresolved trauma endure symptoms like:
- Chronic fear
- Social isolation
- Poor concentration
- An inability to let down their guard and have fun
There Is Good News!
- Trauma-induced changes in your brain are not permanent
- A range of treatment approaches exist to treat this entire cycle
Your brain has neuroplasticity. This is partly why trauma is capable of changing it so much. But if you flip the script, it can be used in your favor. With proper techniques, your brain can be rewired and retrained. The effects of trauma can be halted and reversed. This process involves seeking out a therapist who specializes in trauma. You can also aid the process by using mindful self-care.
The more you know about what’s happened to your brain, the more you can help reverse it. Meditation, for example, can help slow the cycle. As you work to calm the fight-or-flight response, you can reduce the flow of stress hormones.