Trauma And Recovery: How Trauma Affects the Brain

June 8, 2023

One of the most difficult things that we as humans can experience is trauma. Whether it’s generational, cultural, religious, or any number of other types, trauma worms its way into our minds and gives us constant reminders of things we don’t gain anything from remembering. To make things more complicated, the events that cause genuine trauma are often difficult to talk about because they’re taboo, complex, and painful—and many traumatized individuals would call even that an understatement.

Trauma is known to affect our minds, involving anything from flashbacks at seemingly random things to dissociative amnesia regarding the traumatic event(s). Also common are panic attacks when placed in similar situations, guarding and distancing where it isn’t always necessary, and many other symptoms that traumatized individuals sometimes have to deal with every day. The thing most people don’t know, though, is something that many psychologists have realized as MRI and CT scanning technology have improved over time—trauma, especially repeated trauma, actually has the power to change the physical brain.

As it turns out, physiological trauma symptoms that are well-known among survivors and psychologists—having an overactive amygdala, for example—are more than just physiological. The amygdala is known to physically enlarge in survivors while the hippocampus and pre-frontal cortex shrink, proving that there’s a physical side to the classic symptoms of forgetting trauma, having permanently high stress levels, and lacking the emotional regulation skills of a non-traumatized person. All this goes to show that traumatized individuals aren’t just seeking attention, and now they have the technology to prove it.

Another way of looking at the changes in a traumatized brain is through hormones. Stress hormones like glucose are naturally secreted when we’re in danger, but when an individual has been harmed or put in potential harm enough times, it becomes difficult for the brain to distinguish the difference between an actually harmful situation and a situation that’s only perceived as harmful. In this way, our brains’ natural filtering systems—the ones that say, “This is bad, but this isn’t”—begin to label everything as harmful, and stress hormones are released at levels disproportionate to where they should be, even in everyday situations.

This also happens in the amygdala, the affectionately-labeled “smoke detector” of the brain that’s in charge of the fight-flight-freeze response. In brain scans of people who have experienced trauma, the amygdala lights up much brighter than it does on those who haven’t. This is a kind of physical proof for the knowledge that traumatized people’s amygdalae are often to blame for the belief that there is danger where there’s not (and the rash reactions that are thusly subconsciously encouraged).

So basically, when something happens where a person is totally out of control, or they feel trapped in a way that makes them unable to alter their position in a situation, the brain is at risk of developing detrimental changes that manifest as complex trauma symptoms. A lot of these symptoms originate in the emotional regulation and information processing parts of the brain, which have the ability to physically shift with severe and repeated trauma and give us some of the symptoms we talked about.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, but thankfully, there’s a lot of literature out there for anyone who might want to know more about how trauma affects the brain. The important thing is that it does—but there are solutions to this, and the changes don’t have to be permanent. We’ll talk about some of those after we get into how trauma affects the body, so stay tuned!

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