People that experience trauma not only suffer from mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, they may even have significant changes in their brain. Victims of trauma, particularly those who develop PTSD may have their brain “rewired” in a sense due to their exposure to trauma. Childhood trauma can even impact the developing brain and cause variations in the volume and function of the brain.
Researchers are continuing to determine exactly how PTSD impacts the brain and even the impact of trauma that doesn’t result in PTSD. Understanding how trauma affects the brain may help create new treatment methods to help reduce and minimize some of the painful emotional symptoms associated with trauma. PTSD symptoms can be frightening and debilitating so gaining insight into how the brain functions differently may be useful in recovery.
Tools like neuroimaging are used to create maps of the brain in order to study PTSD sufferers. These maps show areas of the brain that vary from normal non-trauma brain structure. Traumatic stress leads to significant changes in brain structure and function that cause the victim to continue experiencing stress.
What Happens When Trauma Occurs
When a person experiences trauma, a certain part of their brain takes over that triggers the “fight or flight” response meant to protect us from danger. In this mode, nonessential body and mind functions shut down until the threat ceases and the nervous system allows those higher functions to resume. With severe trauma however, after effects of this process remain which can lead to nightmares, flashbacks, and difficulty with change or self-expression.
According to neuroimaging studies the main areas of the brain impacted by trauma are the amygdala, the hippocampus and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. These are part of a stress circuit in the brain which may explain why traumatic stress continues long after the event is over. The changes in these parts of the brain may also be responsible for specific symptoms PTSD.
The hippocampus is the part of the brain responsible for recalling memory and differentiating between past and present experiences. PTSD victims lose volume in the hippocampus due to elevated stress hormones. As a result they may have trouble telling the difference between the past and present leading them to avoid situations that remind them of their trauma.
Volume loss also takes place in the vmPFC which controls our response to emotions. Having volume loss in this area can make it harder for PTSD victims to control their reactions and behavior. They may also have an enlarged amygdala which causes them to have negative moods and further difficulty controlling emotions.
Treating PTSD and the Brain
Although these significant changes take place in the brain, fortunately it is possible to reverse some of the symptoms. These areas of the brain can start functioning better with treatment methods that improve emotional regulation and memory. Certain medications and therapies can even bring back volume in parts of the brain that experienced loss such as the hippocampus.
In addition to regular psychotherapy there are methods like neuro-linguistic programming, hypnosis and other therapies to help reprogram the mind and reverse changes in the brain. Even therapies like trauma releasing exercises and body-mind techniques which help the individual reconnect with themselves may be useful in improving the brain’s functioning. PTSD management can help a person bounce back both mentally and emotionally from the effects of trauma.
Treatment can help all kinds of different trauma reactions, even for those that experienced trauma but have not developed PTSD. Trauma can lead to all kinds of mental health and behavioral issues including depression, anxiety and substance abuse. Many of the effects on the brain that influence a person’s behavior can be reversed and minimized through regular treatment.
Childhood Trauma and the Developing Brain
Many people experience trauma early on in life while their brain is still developing. Children with post-traumatic stress will have variations in the volume and surface area of the insula. The insula is a region of the brain buried deep in the cerebral cortex that is crucial for self-awareness and reactions to sensory information.
Children may be more impacted by trauma than adults but providing them treatment early on can minimize the effects of PTSD. Young children need to learn how to cope with stress and process the traumatic event in a way that can prevent long term damage to their mental health. Fortunately, with treatment children can also bounce back from trauma and improve their brain functioning.
Although trauma can be devastating to a person’s mental health and has a serious impact on crucial aspects of their functioning, recovery is possible. Treatment methods that focus on emotional regulation and building back volume in the brain can be most effective for patients dealing with PTSD or any type of past trauma.