How Trauma Affects Your Brain

How Trauma Affects Your Brain

When a person experiences a trauma, the brain reacts in several different ways which can affect the life of that person moving forward.  Just as a physical injury from a traumatic accident can affect your body at the site of the injury for years to come, your mind can be also be impacted for years after a traumatic incident, whether due to a physical or psychological trauma.

Trauma causes an overwhelming feeling of helplessness and fear of potential death, serious injury, serious loss (death of someone else), pain, or entrapment. These overwhelming feelings and fear cause the brain to react in ways to try and protect itself.  Traumatic experiences can overwhelm the brain’s ability to cope using normal methods of stress relief, and thus alternative coping methods have to be developed, which can cause disruption in the lives of people trying to recover from trauma.

In order to understand why people may have certain reactions to traumatic events, it is important to understand what trauma really is and the range of ways that the brain reacts to the trauma.

Defining Traumatic Experiences

Trauma can occur in response to major onetime events such as natural disasters, a car accident, witnessing or being a victim of violence or a crime such as sexual or physical assault. It may also occur in response to chronic or repetitive experiences such as child abuse or neglect, military combat, neighborhood violence and crime, wartime atrocities, physically or emotionally abusive relationships, and long-term deprivation.

The most important thing to understand about trauma is that it is based on a person’s subjective experience. Two people could experience a similar  incident but react in very different ways.  The objective facts of the experience do not always cause the same reaction in everybody, so it’s important to understand that it is the individual that defines whether the experience was traumatic or not.

Whether a person perceives an incident as being traumatic or not often has to do with how much danger they were in during the event, whether loss of life occurred or could have occurred, whether it was a one-time incident or an ongoing experience, whether they have access to reasonable safety measures, how much support they have from friends and family, and whether they are validated or shamed for their experiences.

What are the Symptoms of Trauma

When a person has experienced a trauma, such as a sexual assault, a home invasion, or a significant loss, they may experience a wide range of symptoms in reaction to the trauma.  Remember that these are NORMAL reactions to ABNORMAL situations. These symptoms may include:

  • Emotional distress
  • Distressful and intrusive memories
  • Constant feeling of being in danger
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Fatigue
  • Emotional numbing or disconnection from others
  • Inability to trust others
  • Anger
  • Hyper-arousal (constant worry or checking behaviors)
  • Physical reactions (headaches, muscle aches)
  • Anxiety
  • Uncontrollable fear
  • Confusion about timing or order of events
  • Feelings of guilt, shame, or self-blame
  • Difficulty concentrating

These are all indications that the brain is attempting to either prevent further trauma from happening again by keeping you in a constant state or arousal or protecting you from potential emotional distress by suppressing upsetting or painful emotions. It is also normal to experience an increase in these symptoms in reaction to another stressors that arises or surrounding a stressful time such as an anniversary or other significant date related to the trauma.

The Effects of Trauma on the Brain

When you have experienced trauma, your brain goes into a state of hyper-arousal, basically because your fight or flight response has been triggered and your brain reacts by trying to prepare you for potential danger.  That potential for danger reverberates through your entire body, including your limbic system and your autonomic nervous system.

Your limbic system includes the hypothalamus, the hippocampus, and the amygdala, as well as other areas of the brain, and has to do with processing emotions and forming memories. The hypothalamus is responsible for regulating many bodily functions, including your arousal to emotional circumstances and the functioning of your autonomic nervous system (blood pressure, breathing rate, sweating, heart-rate). The hippocampus helps you convert what is happening in the present moment into long-term memories. The amygdala helps to control reactions to stimuli, such as aggression and fear.

When trauma triggers a stress reaction in your limbic system, it can feel overwhelming because your brain is not used to dealing with such a high level of stress, and so its functions can be negatively affected.  This reaction in the brain accounts for why some trauma survivors have difficulty recalling the correct order of timing or certain details of the event.

It’s not because they are lying or exaggerating, which some trauma survivors are accused of when their memory is impaired due to a trauma. It is because the part of their limbic system responsible for creating and storing memories was flooded by stress and the entire system was reacting in ways to focus solely on surviving the traumatic situation. Unfortunately, this memory impairment in reaction to trauma is often used against survivors to try and minimize what happened to them or cause doubt in their account of the events.

The truth is that when traumatic events happen, your memory can get mixed up and certain events may not be organized correctly in your brain’s memory filing system, so to speak. This doesn’t mean that a survivor’s perception of events is invalid, it just means that their memory may have been damaged during the traumatic event, which can cause further confusion, shame, or embarrassment about the traumatic event.

Your autonomic nervous system includes the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, and it is responsible for alternately preparing you to handle a dangerous situation, and then calming you back down when the danger is over.

During a stressful event, the nervous system releases the stress hormone cortisol to give you a boost of energy to react to the dangerous situation. Normally, when a stressful even passes, the nervous system will then regulate your hormonal output and bring your back to your normal homeostasis.  However, when a major trauma overwhelms your system in reaction to the perceived danger you are in that flood of stress hormones might remained heightened, leaving you feeling stuck in a constant state of hyper-arousal.

This state of hyper-arousal gets exacerbated when you are being constantly flooded with stressors, such as being stuck in an abusive relationship (where you feel you’re always walking on eggshells), or if you experience multiple triggers back to back (such as losing several loved ones in a short period of time).  This relentless stress to your system causes your brain to react in a way that can feel like you are constantly on the look-out for the next potential danger or loss, and can make it hard to get back to a period of relative emotional stability.

When to Seek Treatment for Trauma

Trauma recovery can take time, and there is no hard and fast time-line for how long it takes for each individual. However, if you have been experiencing the symptoms described above for more than 3 months after the initial trauma, you may need to seek out professional help. Remember that it is normal to have these emotional reactions to trauma, but talking with someone in a safe environment can help you to process your fears and the emotional damage that you have endured.

If you have people who you know are supportive and understanding, it can be helpful to talk to those who care about you and explain what you are going through. It can be hard to reach out for help, but it is so helpful when you feel supported by those who truly care about you. Talking about trauma can be hard, so turning to a professional therapist or a support group for people who have been through similar traumas can be incredibly healing and help you get to the next level in your recovery.

If you are experiencing any of the following after a trauma, please consider seeking out a professional with experience in trauma recovery:

  • Severe fear, anxiety, or depression
  • Trouble with functioning at home or work
  • Disturbing nightmares or flashbacks
  • Avoiding more and more things to prevent distress
  • Unable to talk about the trauma with caring friends or family
  • Feeling overwhelmed or frozen in life and unable to move forward
  • Abusing substances to feel relief from emotional distress

Trauma recovery involves processing memories related to the trauma and the feelings that were triggered during and after the event.  An informed trauma therapist can help you to face feelings and memories that have caused you distress and discharge some of the emotional energy or anger you may feel related to the traumatic event.  You may also learn new ways to cope with overwhelming feelings and learn how to re-build your ability to assess safety and build trusting relationships.

Trauma disrupts your body and your brain’s ability to feel safe and at ease. Your nervous system may feel like it is stuck in overdrive and you can’t calm down or feel balanced. In order to dispel that excess energy and feel safe again, you may have to go through some uncomfortable things, like talking about painful memories. Don’t push yourself to do things you’re not ready for, but recognize that healing takes time and you don’t have to go through it alone.

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For more on trauma recovery, see this post on 5 Things Needed for Trauma Recovery.

5 Things Needed for Trauma Recovery

5 Things Needed for Trauma Recovery

Recovery from trauma can be a complicated, long, and difficult process.  In truth, a traumatic experience is not always something that a person can get over, but there are ways to heal and work through a traumatic experience.  Trauma recovery is about stabilization, healing, and building back mental and emotional strength that may have been damaged by the trauma.

Trauma occurs when an event or series of events happens to a person that threatens their safety, or they witness trauma occurring to another person, or it could also occur when an intense emotional loss happens.  These situations can happen in the course of an act of violence, a natural disaster, the loss of a loved one, especially in disturbing or unusual circumstances, or after experiences of abuse.

Trauma causes recurring, intrusive, distressful memories or thoughts related to the trauma, flashbacks or nightmares of the trauma, and physiological reactions such as fatigue or insomnia. The psychological impact on those who suffer from trauma-related symptoms can be intense and painful.  Recovery from trauma involves learning to live with the new reality created by the trauma, processing the event and the emotional response to the trauma, and learning to both release the emotional pain and simultaneously accept that there may always remain some pain.  It can be incredibly daunting for people who feel vulnerable and injured from a traumatic event.

Whether you have experienced a trauma yourself, or you know someone who has, it is important to understand some of the things trauma survivors need in order to recover and heal from a traumatic event in their life. Here are some of the most important aspects of trauma recovery that I have found are needed to support those who have experienced a trauma:

  1. Safety

Trauma often involves a threat to personal safety or the safety of someone you care about. This can happen due to exposure to war or other civilian violence, sexual assault, domestic violence, or childhood abuse, or in the case of the death of a loved one or the near death of yourself. That threat to safety causes survivors to live in a state of hyper-arousal, due to an ingrained instinct for survival.  When your safety is threatened, you have to drop everything and try to achieve a sense of safety again before you can move forward with your life.  This is why is is so important for trauma survivors to feel safe.  This might be accomplished by increasing security at home or other areas, or by avoiding areas that trigger a sense of fear or safety threat. It may also mean building a sense of emotional safety by setting boundaries with others or limiting contact with people who have been abusive.

  1. Belief

A major barrier to healing from trauma is when survivors are not believed when they talk about or report their experiences.  When you have experienced a traumatic event, and then are told that you are a liar or that you are exaggerating your experience for attention, this causes further trauma.  A world that already doesn’t feel safe feels even more threatening.  Survivors may feel that they are being blamed for their own victimization, or that their own word about their personal experience is not valid.  If you are not in the position of a court of law that needs to make judgements about an event to determine legal procedures, then you do not need to appoint yourself as the judge and jury of someone’s experience.  Leave the evidence questions to the courts, and be supportive of the people you care about. If you have been traumatized, seek support from those who do believe you, and limit your engagement with those who express disbelief or judgement about your trauma. It can be incredibly painful when those who are supposed to care about you do not believe you, but there is support out there from professionals and advocates that can help.

  1. Validation

People who have experienced a trauma need to be understood in addition to being believed.  Validating someone’s experience by listening to their story and understanding why the experience has impacted them in the way that is has is key to trauma recovery. Trauma survivors need to know that the people around them that care about them are listening and understanding them, so that they feel safe expressing themselves and working through the process of healing. Validation can be provided by family, friends, caregivers, helping professionals, and communities. Feeling validated that your trauma is understood by others to be real and impactful can help you feel supported when you are trying to recover from a traumatic experience.

  1. Empathy

Empathy is different from sympathy, in that sympathy means to feel sorry for someone, whereas empathy means to really understand how someone is feeling. Trauma survivors benefit from receiving empathy from those who have experienced similar traumas, or who can relate to the feelings a trauma survivor is experiencing.  This can be done through support groups or through group therapy, or by talking to a friend who has gone through a similar experience.  Being engaged with others who truly understand your trauma can help you feel less isolated and more validated throughout the healing process.  You don’t have to experience the exact same thing to be empathetic, though.  If you want to help by empathizing with a trauma survivor, you can do so by trying to relate to their feelings of fear, shame, loss, and uncertainty. This doesn’t mean that you need to relay all the times when you have felt those emotions as well, as you don’t want to turn the conversation back around to yourself when you’re trying to be supportive. But it can mean just saying that you understand what is is like to have those feelings, and you want to support their healing throughout their recovery process.

  1. Power

Traumatic events often occur with an accompanying loss of control.  If someone has been violent towards you or violated your rights, you probably felt out of control during the event because your power was taken from you at that moment.  If you have experienced a loss or are grieving, you may feel out of control due to an inability to prevent a death or other losses from happening, and knowing that you do not have the power to bring them back.  Reinstating power in other areas of your life can help you regain that sense of control that was lost during the trauma.  This might mean reclaiming your right to set boundaries with other people or systems, or it might mean learning to say NO in stronger and more assertive ways in response to things you don’t want to do.  It may also mean finding ways to heal through advocacy, such as mothers who have lost children to drunk driving do when they join an organization like MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). Finding ways to exert your power in a healthy and productive way can help the trauma recovery process. If you want to support someone who has been traumatized, helping them to reclaim that power and respecting their choices about how to reclaim that power can be one way to support those individuals.

 

Trauma recovery is a unique process for each person who has been through a traumatic event.  While the recovery process might involve therapy, support groups, learning new coping skills, advocating for needed changes, and reclaiming lost power, each person’s needs will be different.  Some people may find power in forgiveness, while others may feel that they need to hold onto their anger for awhile.  That has to be okay, because no one should dictate how a trauma survivor recovers. When we dictate how trauma survivors find their path to recovery, we actually disempower them, which is counter-productive. Instead, listening and supporting people without judgement or attempts to convince them what they need to do is more effective and helpful.  Keeping these 5 needs in mind when we try to support the people in our lives who have experienced trauma will help us all to be better friends, family members, and neighbors to those who have already been through enough trauma.