How Does Trauma Affect the Brain?

woman sitting by a windowIf you’ve lived through trauma, you might be wondering why you haven’t felt like “yourself” ever since. Sometimes, it feels like you lost the “old you.” Maybe you still feel this way despite making extensive efforts to rebuild your life after trauma. You might have adopted healthier habits, started spending time with people who truly support you, or picked up new hobbies that served as positive distractions. Yet you can’t shake the sense that something is still wrong. Perhaps you still have trouble relaxing, fully trusting your new friends, or envisioning a brighter future.

Why does trauma linger with us for so long? It’s because trauma can actually affect some of the key structures within your brain. Let’s explore how trauma can change your brain, and how understanding these changes can aid you in the healing process.

The Amygdala

People who have survived trauma often struggle with hypervigilance. They are always physically and mentally attuned to potential threats, and they feel like they can never let their guards down. This is because trauma influences the amygdala.

For individuals with a history of trauma, this particular region of the brain shows significant activity. This makes them more susceptible to chronic stress and anxiety. The amygdala is constantly alerting them to “threats” and setting off the “fight, flight, or freeze” response, even when they are perfectly safe. These responses can even lead to severe panic attacks.

The Hippocampus

The hippocampus plays an important role in contextualizing our memories. This area of your brain associates specific memories with different meanings and emotional sensations. It also supports emotional regulations and affects how you cope with stress.

Some research indicates that trauma may actually have a shrinking effect on the hippocampus, which may be why people who have been through traumatic events adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms, struggle with maintaining relationships, and develop mood disorders.

The Prefrontal Cortex

Whenever you make a decision, weigh complex pros and cons, or create long-term plans for the future, your prefrontal cortex is hard at work. This region of your brain governs decision-making and helps you accurately assess the future consequences of your actions today.

Essentially, the prefrontal cortex is a key player in executive functioning. Unfortunately, trauma can inhibit the functioning of this part of your brain. This means that people who have experienced trauma might make more impulsive decisions, struggle to learn new information, or have shorter attention spans.

How Childhood Trauma Affects the Brain

If someone experiences trauma in childhood, it can affect their brain well into adulthood. This is especially true for children who are exposed to repeated traumatic events in childhood or who grow up in dangerous environments.

Overall, childhood trauma can disrupt the normal process of brain development that young people go through. In the long run, this can put children at a higher risk for mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, and teenagers and adults who lived through childhood trauma may turn to substance abuse to cope.

Healing Your Brain After Trauma

When you’re ready to heal from trauma, it helps to understand how it may have changed your brain. Knowing why you might be engaging in certain behaviors can guide you toward solutions. Because trauma can have such a detrimental impact on your quality of life, it can be a good idea to work with a therapist who has a background in trauma-informed care. This can help you move forward and start a new chapter.

Are you struggling with the effects of past trauma? Working with a therapist can help you truly heal. Reach out to us to discuss your options for scheduling your first trauma therapy session.

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