How Trauma Impacts the Brain

Most people are aware that an injury to the head can adversely affect the brain, but what many people may not know is that psychological trauma can be just as impactful. Psychological trauma can be defined as an incident that induces a level of stress so excessive, that an individual is unable to manage it.  Common events that lead to psychological trauma include, but are not limited to: near death experiences including self or others, sexual assault, abuse, and war.  It is important to note that everyone is unique and their reactions to certain events differ.

PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder. This means that stress from the traumatic event lingers long after the event has ended.  It is a common misconception that PTSD is only applicable to veterans, but as mentioned above anyone can develop this disorder.  Signs and symptoms of PTSD (in adults) can include:

  • Flashbacks, bad dreams, frightening thoughts
  • Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the experience
  • Avoiding thoughts or feelings about the event
  • Being easily startled, feeling tense or on-edge, sleeping difficulty, and angry outbursts
  • Trouble remembering key features of the event, negative thoughts about yourself or others, distorted feelings of guilt or blame, and loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
      For young kids (less than 6 years):

    • Wetting the bed
    • Forgetting how to or being unable to talk
    • Acting out the event during play
    • Being unusually clingy with parents or other adults

Three areas of the brain highly affected by traumatic events are: the amygdala, hippocampus, and pre-frontal cortex.  The amygdala has multiple responsibilities, such as telling your body to release the stress hormone cortisol and controlling emotional response related to survival. Following trauma, it inappropriately responds to the environment and it triggers a person to be hyper aware at all times; this type of hyperarousal keeps cortisol, or the stress hormone, levels higher than they should be.  The hippocampus is the memory manager of the brain; after trauma occurs, it has trouble sending things to long term memory. Therefore, the unpleasant memories of an event are “trapped” in current thought. The pre-frontal cortex has many functions, but it serves an especially important role in focusing attention. Post trauma, it is unable to focus attention as it normally would. This means that distressing thoughts become incessant.

Although PTSD is a serious condition, there is always hope!  The human brain is plastic, meaning that it can restructure itself. Just as a brain can be triggered to rewire after a traumatic event, it can also rewire itself while recovering.

If you would like to learn more about trauma or need help regarding this topic, contact us. We’re here to help!