Your Brain on Trauma

By March 6, 2019 April 4th, 2019 Dr. Rebecca Crecraft

No matter what type of traumatic event you experienced your brain and body were both changed.  This is because trauma is not processed in the normal way that other memories are processed.  Because of the significant impact of the event, every cell is engrained with the memory.  This leaves those neural pathways exposed to being triggered by minor things in the environment.  Let’s take a look at this process in a different way!

The Linen Closet Analogy

Have you ever walked past a linen closet that is too full of jumbled up towels and sheets?  What happens? You brush past the door on your way past and the door flies open and all of the contents of the closet tumble out onto the floor.  Well, this is similar to what happens in your brain after a traumatic event. Your brain did not know what to do with all of the trauma information, so it overstuffs the closet with extraneous details, feelings, and information, and just leaves them there because it doesn’t know what else to do with the information.  This means that when something brushes the door, even if it is something safe that is unrelated to the trauma, that it has the same effect, of everything falling out. This is what happens when a survivor is triggered.

Any reminder of the event, even a very loose connection, triggers the exposed neural pathways and prompts the same reaction in the body as if the traumatic event is actually happening again.  The solution to stop these trauma-reactions is the same as the solution for the linen closet.  The traumatic event needs to be sorted through in treatment, reprocessed, and neatly folded and put back in an organized way.  Your brain is actually being rewired as your trauma is processed. Your linen closet is being cleaned, so that the next time that something brushes up against the door, there will not be the intense reaction like before.

During the trauma

During a traumatic event, the most primal part of the brain, the R-Complex takes over and the brain stem moves the body into survival mode, shutting down any non-essential functions.  The sympathetic nervous system increases stress hormones as it prepares the body to fight, flight, or freeze.

After the trauma

After the trauma the parasympathetic nervous system is supposed to kick back on and shift the body back into restorative mode.  As stress hormones are reduced, the brain is supposed to be able to shift back to it’s normal way of functioning. For survivors that develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), however, this process does not happen.  Instead the brain stays under the control of the R-Complex, which leaves the body primed to manage threats, and those neural pathways we discussed earlier out in the open just waiting to get triggered.

Common brain changes after trauma:

  • Overstimulated amygdala: The amygdala is in charge of threat identification, and pairing memories with emotions (HINT: think the little colored balls that headquarters sorts by emotion in Disney Pixar movie Inside Out).  After a traumatic event though, the amygdala can get stuck in this heightened state of searching for threats, which is when the linen closet door is thrown open over and over again by non-threats.
  • Smaller ventromedial prefrontal cortex: Trauma causes lasting changes to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is involved in regulating emotional responses triggered by the amygdala.  For example, this area regulates negative emotions like fear when a survivor is triggered by something in their environment.
  • Underactive hippocampus: The hippocampus plays an important role in memory.  It helps to record new memories and retrieve them later in response to specific and relevant information in the environment.  The hippocampus also helps us distinguish between past and present memories. After a trauma, the sympathetic nervous system is flooding the system with stress hormones, those hormones kill cells in the hippocampus, which impairs its ability to consolidate memory, and keeps both the body and mind in a reactive state where neither side is receiving the message that the trauma is over.
  • Stress hormones: Similarly, when the body is continually flooded with stress hormones, it is unable to effectively regulate itself.  The stress hormones lead to fatigue of the body and its systems such as the adrenal gland.

Healing from the trauma

The good news is that there is healing from trauma!! Most trauma survivors don’t have this information, or know that what they are experiencing is completely normal!  I often have people come in at the beginning of treatment wondering “What’s wrong [with them]?” or “Why is this happening?” I find that survivors are often comforted to find out that they are not alone. This a normal trauma-reaction that will go away with proper treatment. I spend as much time discussing the facts about trauma and information about treatment as clients need before moving on.  

Although the thought of changes to the brain is scary, the brain is flexible and adaptable just like you.  All of these changes to the brain and body can be reversed with treatment.  As you work through your trauma in sessions, your amygdala will calm down, your hippocampus will restore its memory consolidation, and your nervous system will resume its normal move between threat and safety modes.  You are essentially rewiring your brain through your trauma work.

Although facing a traumatic event is never easy, the benefits to moving past your trauma are priceless. You deserve to move about throughout life without having to worry about when you will have your next panic attack. Wouldn’t it be nice to sleep through the night without worrying about having a nightmare or not being able to sleep? Wouldn’t you like to regain control of your emotions? Aren’t you tired of crying one minute and snapping at your partner the next? All of these things are possible through treatment.

If you or someone you know has experienced something traumatic, and are not able to process it somehow, therapy may be the answer.  Give us a call to set up an appointment and begin feeling more like yourself again now!

Dr. Rebecca Crecraft

Dr. Crecraft is a postdoctoral fellow. She is a trauma specialist, transitions expert, and family disorder healer. Her specialties include emotion regulation, healthy boundaries, and moving on from your past.