Coping with trauma has multiple physical, emotional, and psychological effects, and can have severe effects on the brain as well. The three main parts affected by trauma are the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex.
The amygdala is a part of the brain that mainly regulates the fight, flight, or freeze response. This response typically occurs during traumatic events – we either fight back, flee from the situation, or freeze in place. When we experience triggers and/or threatening situations, a part of the brain called the thalamus releases stress hormones, which stimulates the amygdala. When the amygdala is stimulated, a split second decision is made (fight, flight, or freeze). This means that the cortex, where judgment and critical thinking take place, does not have control over the situation. During these situations, we tend to experience an increase in heart rate, quicker breathing, shaking, sweating, and other physiological symptoms. In some situations, it can take hours to return to normal functioning.
The hippocampus is another part of the brain that can be affected by trauma, and it is right next to the amygdala. The main role of the hippocampus is to convert short term memories to long term memories. During a traumatic event, the process of converting these memories is interrupted because the brain is in survival mode. The stress hormones that stimulate the amygdala impair the hippocampus, which means that we’re focusing on how we feel as well as struggling to take in new information. This means that the traumatic memories may not be converted into long term memories, which is why it might be difficult to remember the exact details of traumatic events.
Trauma can also affect the prefrontal cortex, which plays a role in critical thinking, problem solving, empathy, and awareness. However, during a traumatic event, the prefrontal cortex can shut down because of the stress hormones that are released. Since the brain is in survival mode and the amygdala responds so quickly, higher functioning shuts down. When this occurs, it can be more difficult to understand what is happening and explain the situation as a series of sequential events.
After experiencing trauma, the emotional memory of the event tends to be strong. The brain interprets similar situations or triggers as threatening in order to protect us. In these situations, the amygdala is active as well. Our response to a trigger might be similar to how we responded to the traumatic event(s). Since the amygdala is activated more often, it could become overactive and hypersensitive. If the stress hormones are stimulating the amygdala more often, then the function of the hippocampus is impaired, which could lead to a reduction in the volume of the hippocampus. This also means that the prefrontal cortex may shut down more often. In the long run, the prefrontal cortex might be under-stimulated, which could make it difficult to concentrate and pay attention.
On the bright side, there are multiple ways to cope with how trauma affects the brain.
- Therapy: There are many types of therapy, such as EMDR, CBT, DBT, working with a trauma specialist, etc.
- Medication: It would be advisable to consult with a doctor and talk about possible treatment options.
- Finding out what calms you down: This could be music, exercise, prayer/meditation, breathing exercises, etc.
- Seeking support: If you feel comfortable, you could reach out to friends, family, a therapist/counselor, support groups, online forums, etc.
- Self care: Some ways to care for yourself include eating healthy, getting enough sleep, having a balance between work/school and relaxation, etc.
- Having multiple methods of self expression: These methods can help you express your feelings in healthy ways, and they include writing, painting, dancing, etc.
Knowing how trauma affects the brain – as well as how it affects you individually – can help you figure out coping skills that work for you. Healing is not linear and you might not feel great every day, but having coping skills at your disposal can make a difference.
You are strong. You can get through this.