Traumatic stress and traumatizing events have a wide range of effects on brain function and structure. Trauma is defined as the perception that your safety and livelihood are in jeopardy, in other words, thinking that your life is at risk. Trauma comes in all shapes and sizes, from emotional trauma such as bullying, verbal abuse, and gaslighting to physical trauma such as any form of violence. Natural disasters and wars are also examples of trauma.
Trauma affects everyone differently
Not everyone who undergoes a traumatic event will adapt and grow healthily. Trauma haunts some people, whereas others will go to extreme measures to cover up their emotions and thoughts associated with their trauma. Some individuals may develop mental health and substance use disorders such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some individuals who think they are not affected by their trauma may still have underlying symptoms that are not obvious to the general public. Some individuals may be more sensitive to negative comments or innocuous facial gestures, even though they outwardly seem “okay”. For example, a barbecue may no longer be a barbecue, but now it sounds like an explosion. A red traffic light may no longer be just a red light but rather a possible spark. Our brains undergo changes that affect our emotions, thought processes, and fear management after traumatic experiences. Some individuals may cope better than others, but most individuals will have at least a few subtle underlying changes in their everyday thought processes and perceptions.
How trauma changes the brain
Trauma can alter your brain functioning in many different ways, but three of the most critical changes happen to occur in the following areas:
- The prefrontal cortex, also known as the “thinking center”: The prefrontal cortex is responsible for rational thoughts, decision-making, planning, empathy, and awareness of ourselves and others.
- The anterior cingulate cortex, also known as the “emotion regulation center”: The anterior cingulate cortex is responsible for regulating our thoughts and emotions so that our emotions do not cloud our decisions or judgments.
- The amygdala, also known as the “fear center”: the amygdala takes in all of our sensory information from the things we see and hear to the things we smell, touch and taste, and it answers the question, “Is this a threat?” The primary purpose is to detect danger and, if present, to elicit fear for our bodies to takes action against this threat.
Traumatized brains result in the “thinking center” and “emotion regulation center” becoming under-activated and the “fear center” becoming over-activated, which causes a drastic change in how we perceive the world.
Trauma can result in chronic stress, vigilance, fear, difficulty remaining calm, and trouble sleeping. These symptoms are directly related to the hyperactive “fear center” or amygdala. When the amygdala becomes over-activated after a traumatic event, the individual will often be fearful of everything. They may startle easily and lose all sense of a threat and what is not a threat.
Trauma creates confusion, clouded judgment, the inability to perform tasks, and problems with attention and concentration. This is because trauma causes the “thinking center” or the prefrontal cortex to be under-activated.
Survivors of trauma will often complain about feeling incapable of managing their emotions. They may have a hard time letting things go, may feel overly emotional about minor annoyances, and may allow their emotions to dictate their thoughts. This is because trauma causes the “emotion regulation center” or the anterior cingulate cortex to be under-activated.
The four categories of symptoms with posttraumatic stress disorder include:
- Intrusive thoughts (unwanted memories).
- Changes in mood (blame, shame, persistent negativity).
- Hypervigilance (exaggerated startle response).
- Avoidance (of all sensory and emotional trauma-related things).
These cause confusing symptoms for individuals who do not understand why they feel so suddenly out of control regarding their thoughts, emotions, and actions.
Unexpected rage, puddles of tears, shallow breathing, rapid heart rate, shaking, memory loss, concentration problems, the inability to fall or stay asleep, nightmares, and emotional numbness can overtake the daily life of anyone who was witnessed or undergone a traumatic event. The problem is not that the individual cannot or will not just “get over it”; but that their brain has changed and, therefore, ample time and professional help are needed to “re-wire” the brain.