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How the Brain Deals with Trauma

traumatic stress
When someone goes through a traumatic experience it not only affects them emotionally but it can affect their brain functioning as well. The intense stress that someone experiences during a traumatic event can cause lasting changes that can affect their ability to cope with problems in the future. In the most severe cases of trauma, changes in the brain can lead to the development of issues like post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

PTSD involves emotional disturbances, unwanted flashbacks and memories of the trauma, and feelings of panic and anxiety when memories are triggered. Trauma and PTSD can be very disruptive for a person’s health and development especially if they experience the trauma when they are young. Trauma can come in the form of losing a loved one suddenly, witnessing or being the victim of violence or abuse and being involved in war.

Trauma can be complex and difficult to process, especially for people that are not able to receive help right away. Professional treatment can help ease some of the problems that result from trauma in spite of changes that may have occurred in the brain. For anyone dealing with PTSD, it is crucial that they receive psychotherapy and possibly medication to help them cope with their symptoms.

Trauma’s Impact on Areas of the Brain

When a trauma occurs, a person’s brain develops some dysfunctions that can lead to mental health symptoms. Trauma affects the brain in two key regions – the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is a small structure in the middle of the temporal lobe that is designed to detect threats, activate the fight or flight response and the central nervous system to deal with the threat and work to store new emotional and threat-related memories.

The prefrontal cortex is in the frontal lobe just behind your forehead and it is designed to regulate awareness, make decisions about how to respond to situations, determine the meaning of events and regulate emotions. The amygdala detects threats and reacts to them while the prefrontal cortex assesses the threat and either intensifies or calms down the “fight or flight” response. Trauma and PTSD can change the functioning in these two regions of the brain which leads to an increase of stress and more frequent fight or flight response that is less regulated.

Studies have shown that in response to a perceived threat, people who experienced trauma or have PTSD have a hyper reactive amygdala and a less activated prefrontal cortex. That means that their brain and nervous system tends to react more intensely to potential threats and their prefrontal cortex does not always work to calm the response. As a result people with PTSD have more anxiety and panicked responses to situations that may not necessarily be threatening.

Effects of Brain Dysfunctions

Because trauma changes these two regions of the brain, it leads to certain symptoms that can cause problematic feelings and behaviors. The overactive amygdala causes hyperarousal which can lead to the person being emotionally triggered by anything related to their traumatic experience. Images of war or abuse, seeing someone that resembles an assailant or even loud noises can trigger the stress response.

The overactive amygdala can also lead to hypervigilance which causes sleep disruptions and insomnia which is a very common problem for people with PTSD. Their hyperreactivity can also make people more alert and impulsive and they may act in anger without any control over their actions. This kind of symptom can cause problems at work or in relationships as the person may lash out when they feel emotionally triggered.

People with PTSD also tend to have an excess of negative emotion due to changes in their brain. They may find it hard to enjoy day to day activities or hobbies that used to make them happy. Their less active prefrontal cortex makes it harder to regulate negative emotions.

Treating Trauma and Improving Functions

Even though PTSD can lead to changes in the brain it is still possible to treat these issues and minimize the impact of trauma on a person’s functioning. Therapy techniques can help enhance the ability of the brain to assign less threatening meanings to situations that are normally triggering. Medication can also be useful in calming the reactivity of the brain to things it perceives as threatening or stressful.

Techniques like mindfulness training and cognitive behavioral therapy can help create positive changes in how the brain deals with trauma. Patients can learn to calm down their threat response so that they can confront challenging situations without reacting too strongly. Over time they will be able to face distressing feelings and stop avoiding the places, people or situations that remind them of their trauma.

Treatment for PTSD and trauma can create lasting change and allow people to face their past with a more positive outlook.