In today's post we'll talk about the effects trauma and PTSD have on the brain.
What Trauma Looks Like
"Our brains are wired for protection but trauma rewires them for protection."
Trauma looks different for everybody and it's important to recognize that there is no "higher degree" of trauma as all experiences are valid and can have harmful impacts on anyone. "Small T" trauma can be just as frightening as more universal and common types of trauma.
Trauma can show up as:
- Emotional/verbal abuse
- Neglect/absence of a parent
- Violation of boundaries
- Conflicted realtionships with others
- Mental/physical illness
- Muscle tension
- Compromised immune systems/chronic pain
Trauma can cause you to:
- Have a heightened sense of danger
- Develop trust issues
- Partake in self destruction
- Hide emotions
- Focus soley on surviving, disregarding any emotions
Normal Brain Development
To better understand how trauma affects the brain in its developmental stages, we need to know normal brain development throughout one's lifetime. It is important to note that as each person is different, the way their brain reacts to trauma will be different as well. Just as the majority of the body, the brain also changes in shape and function throughout a lifetime.
Most of our brain is developed in utero but is constantly changing thereafter. During childhood, our brains develop starting from the brain stem. It controls our breathing and heart rate, The amygdala, hippocampus, and corpus callosum all show an increase in size during childhood. An excess amount of stress during childhood directly impacts the way the brain develops.
Ages 0-5: The brain shows an overall increase in size due to the development of grey and white matter.
Ages 7-17: White matter increases, grey matter decreases (overall brain size stays constant)
Ages 17-20: There is a slower decrease in grey matter (prominent in the temporal and frontal cortex), the ventricles expand, and white matter stays constant.
Consequently, trauma occurring at different stages of life will have different effects on brain development.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that occurs after a person has witnessed a traumatic event. Early trauma and other events can eventually lead to PTSD. The hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex are areas that are associated with stress response in the brain. PTSD can lead to lifelong alterations in these specific regions. Several mental symptoms of PTSD include intrusive/obsessive thoughts, alterations in memory, trouble with concentration, startling reactions, flashbacks, and sleep disturbances. Physically, PTSD can cause chronic pain/autoimmune disorder due to the abiding subjection to adrenaline and cortisol leading to inflammation. When diagnosed with PTSD, there is difficulty differentiating between harmless events in the present and dangerous events in the past. There is an increase in cortisol and norepinephrine responses to stress among those with PTSD, as well as verbal declarative memory deficits. Patients diagnosed with PTSD have shown to have deficits in explicit memory.
Norepinephrine and cortisol (important to survival) are two essential neurochemicals in stress response.
Trauma that has occurred during essential stages of development can adversely impact the way the brain grows. The instigated alterations in brain structure and function that stress brings are seen in certain symptoms of PTSD. These variations in neurochemicals and targeted brain regions eventually change neuronal circuits in stress response.
The hippocampus, associated with explicit memory, is easily affected by any stressors or trauma. Then, the hippocampus processes the threat received by the amygdala and together they put the information of what, where, and when something happened, into memory. The hippocampus contextualizes the traumatic event and its triggers and combines it with memory. Changes in memory and troubled learning have been seen in patients with PTSD, thus proving trauma to be highly impactful on a developing hippocampus.
Important to survival and the detection of potential danger, the amygdala develops a greater sense of sensitivity after a traumatic experience, leading to an individual having a lack of rational thought. People, surroundings, and any other factors that could remind one of their trauma are closely monitored by the amygdala. Any threat of danger sparks the amygdala which triggers the flight or fight response. The amygdala communicates with other areas to release cortisol, a stress hormone. Patients with PTSD tend to have a response that is overactive which means even a simple, harmless act could immedialty trigger a stress response.
Acting like a braking system, the pre-frontal cortex helps balance emotional responses after the flight/fight response has been provoked by the amygdala. After the response has been prompted, the pre-frontal cortex processes the event and its threat. It is responsible for what happens next- how we react to the event, our emotions regarding it, and impulsivity. If there is no danger perceived, the pre-frontal cortex stops the flight/fight response. In patients diagnosed with PTSD, the cortex doesn't work as it should. With an overactive amygdala and a lack of activeness in the pre-frontal cortex, certain survival precautions and actions can be taken to extremes with someone who has PTSD.
Using Neuroplasticity to Combat PTSD
Being extremely plastic, the brain, specifically the hippocampus, has a large amount of room for neuroplasticity and rewiring. External environmental factors and surroundings play a huge role in changing the regions affected by trauma. Finding new positive experiences and strengths can help acknowledge and combat past events. By using directed focus and mindfully monitering the present, you can become aware of intrusive/unintentional thoughts, allowing for changes to thought patterns.
Ways to Rewire after Traumatic Experiences
- Identify trauma-related triggers
Identify the difference between dangerous trauma-related triggers and harmless triggers and practice approaching the safe ones without fear or anxiety. Ask yourself "What triggered me?"
- Practice mindfulness
You can't be triggered and relaxed at the same time, so it is important to take some time to reflect and mediate in order to bring your mind to an eased state and self-regulate. Over time, the overactive amygdala will ease down and will no longer have the PTSD to triggers. Our brain will be less reactive to triggers than we once were.
- Practice coping skills
These can be breathwork, journaling, practing presence.
- Accept your emotions
Instead of disregaring your emotions, acknowledge that they are present and understand their message.
- Give yourself time
It can takes weeks to months to even years to accept the past and live with it.
For professional and tailored guidance, please seek support from a licensed therapist or doctor.
Thank you for reading! Remember, healing doesn't mean the damage never existed. It means the damage no longer controls our lives.