Experiencing traumatic events can change the trajectory of our lives. In addition to causing physical, emotional, and psychological pain, traumatic stress can affect the way we handle relationships, manage day-to-day challenges, and think about life. This has led many people to wonder if traumatic stress can change the brain.
How The Brain Deals With Trauma
As complex as the brain is, one of its primary functions is to keep us safe. As we live life, our brain converts experiences into memories so we can prioritize activities that yield good results and avoid experiences that have negative consequences. When we experience trauma, our brains work overtime to keep us safe. The brain, relying on negative blueprints of the past, keeps warning us of present danger long after the threat or traumatic experience ends. This reaction changes the way the brain functions.
According to Dr. Paul MacLean, a renowned neuroscientist, the brain can be divided into three main parts: the reptilian, mammalian, and neomammalian brain. This triune brain model believes that each part of the brain has specific functions.
- The reptilian brain houses our survival instincts and manages autonomic body processes such as our heart rate, breathing, hunger, and thirst.
- The mammalian brain helps us process emotions like joy and fear and regulates our attachment style.
- The neomammalian brain is responsible for sensory processing, learning, memory, decision-making, and complex problem solving.
When we experience trauma, the brain shuts down all nonessential systems and activates the sympathetic nervous system and the mammalian brain. To help us survive the trauma, the brain releases stress hormones and activates the flight or fight response.
As the threat passes, the parasympathetic nervous system reactivates and all three parts of the brain start functioning again. Research shows that traumatic stress can interfere with this process, trapping the brain in “survival mode.”
How Emotional Trauma Changes The Brain
Traumatic stress can change the brain’s delicate chemical balance and structure. These effects, which can impact the way we function, can be minor or severe depending on the type of traumatic stress we’re dealing with. Some people, for example, develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), while others live with a heightened sense of anxiety, act impulsively, and have difficulty managing their emotions. All of these changes are symptoms that occur because of the way traumatic stress affects the brain.
Traumatic Stress Activates The Amygdala
The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure that helps us process emotions. The amygdala also helps regulate how we respond to fear and create emotional memories. Traumatic stress over-activates the amygdala. When this happens, our fear responses become more intense. This means that memories of traumatic events can become nightmares and flashbacks. This can also mean that emotion-driven thoughts become so intrusive that they can prevent us from sleeping.
An overactive amygdala also means our brain can have difficulty realizing the difference between a threat then and a threat now. This means that when we’re reminded of a trauma event or experience, the amygdala responds the exact same way it would if we were experiencing the trauma for the first time. This causes us to be on high alert all the time and can make us feel like we’re constantly on edge. The results of an overactive amygdala can look different for each of us, but untreated traumatic stress almost always causes us to exhibit more fear of stressors than others.
In addition to that, an overactive amygdala can also cause:
- Chronic stress
- Heightened fear
- Increased irritation
- An inability to calm down
Traumatic Stress Can Shrink The Hippocampus
Traumatic stress also affects the hippocampus, the part of the brain which is responsible for storing and retrieving memories and differentiating between past and present experiences. Studies show that experiencing trauma and living with high levels of stress can decrease the volume of the hippocampus. This can make it hard for us to distinguish between the past and present. Because of this, even environments that remind us of traumatic experiences can cause fear, stress, and panic. Instead of the brain being able to easily create and store new memories, traumatic stress can keep old traumatic memories at the forefront of our minds, causing us to live in a constant state of hypervigilance and intense emotional reactivity.
Traumatic Stress Can Decrease Function In The Prefrontal Cortex (PFC)
The prefrontal cortex helps us reason well, regulate and interpret emotions, control impulses, and solve complex problems. Scientific data shows that traumatic stress can diminish functionality in the prefrontal cortex. This can negatively impact our ability to learn new information, manage our emotions well, and solve problems. In other words, traumatic stress can make logical thinking difficult, which in turn, can make us feel incapable of controlling our fear.
How Do These Brain Changes Affect Our Day-To-Day Lives?
Living with traumatic stress can change the brain so much that daily life can feel like a challenge. High levels of stress hormones coupled with an overactive amygdala, a shrunken hippocampus, and less active prefrontal cortex can cause:
- Panic attacks
- Memory issues
- Poor concentration
- Trouble making decisions
- Difficulty learning new things
Traumatic stress can also lead to fatigue. When the brain uses a good amount of energy trying to protect us from perceived threats, we can feel emotionally, physically, and mentally depleted. Feeling this way can make daily responsibilities and self-care activities feel like a chore.
Living with a brain that’s always on alert can also make relationships challenging. When we constantly feel threatened, paranoid, or afraid, we may not accurately pick up on how others feel and think. This can lead to communication problems that can put a strain on some of our most important relationships. But there’s hope. Brain-focused treatment programs can help heal the mind.
Helping The Brain Heal From Traumatic Stress
Here at StoneRidge Centers, we know how much traumatic stress can affect the brain. Living with traumatic stress can make you highly reactive, constantly stressed, incredibly anxious, impulsive, and irrational at times. But you don’t have to continue to live this way. Our treatment programs can help the brain heal from traumatic stress. Contact us today to learn more. We want to help you live the thriving life you deserve.
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