How Does Trauma Affect The Brain?

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Trauma affects the brain in many ways, perhaps the most important longer term effect is the creation of triggers and associations towards other stimuli in life that cause a person to unnecessarily experience a fight or flight response.

Trauma is an integral part of the human experience. Every one of us has experienced trauma in one form or another. But, more extreme incidences and repeated or prolonged trauma can have lasting effects on the brain, body, and behavior. In this article, we explore how trauma affects the brain and what that means for trauma survivors.

Understanding Trauma

Emotional trauma is the psychological response we have to emotionally intense or life-threatening experiences. Emotional trauma is common, but still widely misunderstood. People experiencing the effects of trauma do not always recognize their traumatic experiences as the source of their symptoms. 

There are countless ways in which unprocessed trauma can manifest in a person’s life. From depression and anxiety to disordered eating and substance use disorders, the list is long. 

Identifying and treating emotional trauma is often the key to granting someone freedom from addiction, depression, and a host of other conditions which impact quality of life. This is one of the many reasons why diagnosing and treating emotional trauma is so important to us here at Cottonwood Tucson.

The Different Types of Emotional Trauma

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Emotional trauma can be broken down into 3 primary categories: Acute Trauma, Complex Trauma, and Secondary Trauma. These categories help us better understand how trauma affects the brain and behavior of the person experiencing it and how to best help them. There are more potential causes of emotional trauma than can be listed here. Below are some common examples beneath each emotional trauma category.

Acute Trauma 

Acute trauma is related to a single event that is distressing enough to have a lasting impact on the person or people who experience it. Examples of acute trauma sources include:

  • Medical trauma, like a catastrophic injury
  • Unexpected death of a loved one
  • Physical assault
  • Sexual assault
  • Divorce 

Complex Trauma

Complex trauma is similar to acute trauma, except that it comes from a group of traumatic experiences or continuous trauma over a long period of time. Examples include:

  • Domestic violence (repeated physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse).
  • Being a victim of repeated racist, homophobic, or transphobic behavior.
  • Being a victim of repeated sexual abuse as a child.
  • Living in a dangerous or violent area.
  • Chronic, serious illness. 

Secondary Trauma

There is perhaps less awareness about secondary trauma than the acute and complex varieties, but it can have just as much of an impact on a person’s life. Examples include:

  • Witnessing someone you love being hurt or abused.
  • Witnessing a tragedy (when you are not in danger yourself)
  • Exposing yourself to videos or accounts of violence and tragedy. 
  • Being in a relationship with someone who is living with a trauma disorder.

How Does Trauma Affect the Brain?

The short-term effects of trauma are what a person experiences during and immediately after a traumatic event. They begin with the body’s natural response to stress, commonly known as “fight or flight”. When the brain senses danger serious enough to trigger this response, it floods the body with adrenaline and cortisol

These hormones are intended to prepare us to either physically defend ourselves (fight) or run away (flight). They cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, sharpen our senses and awareness, and may suppress bodily functions that aren’t as critical at the moment, like your immune system and digestion. These effects are useful when we are in actual physical or mortal danger of course. Humans evolved this stress response as a survival mechanism. 

How Trauma Creates Triggers 

The problem is that the primitive brain can’t always differentiate when we are really in mortal danger or not, so stressful experiences in modern life can also trigger this response when it is decidedly less useful. 

Even when “fight or flight” might be a practical response to a situation, when this response is triggered repeatedly and these hormones remain elevated, it can cause unwanted side effects like anxiety and physical discomfort. 

The brain also “learns” to associate certain stimuli with danger as a result of trauma. These stimuli become what are called triggers. For example, if a woman was sexually abused as a child by her uncle who worked at an oil refinery, the smell of petroleum products might trigger intense anxiety for her, even decades after the abuse had stopped. 

The Long-Term Effects of Trauma on the Brain

Triggers are an example of one of the long-term effects of trauma on the brain. The lasting impact trauma can have on a person can be profound and far-reaching. Living with untreated complex trauma can impact nearly every aspect of your life. Treatment for trauma conditions is critical for that reason. 

No one should have to suffer from the symptoms of trauma. Treating trauma is also often the key to resolving other issues, like substance use disorders. The long-term effects of trauma can play havoc with levels of different neurotransmitters like serotonin, which are associated with regulating mood. This may be part of the reason why trauma survivors often experience depression and other mood disorders

Trauma’s effects on the brain go further than that though. They also include changes to the physical structure and function of parts of the brain. The effects of trauma on brain structure and function occur mostly in 3 key areas. They are the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and the hippocampus. 

How Trauma Affects the Brain’s Emotion and Memory Functions 

The prefrontal cortex is the area in the brain where higher-order thinking and reasoning occur. 

Trauma can change the structure and function of this brain region. This can lead to a range of effects that can be disruptive in a trauma sufferer’s everyday life. It may affect decision-making and prioritization, for example. 

Considered the brain’s “emotional center”, the amygdala is the part of the brain where feelings are regulated and processed. That is where the “fight or flight” phenomenon originates since anxiety and fear are core emotions that are part of our survival instincts. 

Traumatic experiences increase activity in the amygdala dramatically, much the same way a mortal threat, like our ancient ancestors being chased by a saber-toothed tiger might. Trauma’s effects on the amygdala over time can have a variety of complex emotional repercussions. 

Finally, the hippocampus is the area of the brain responsible for both memory and regulating emotions. Like the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, the structure and function of the hippocampus can also be affected by trauma. 

This can have a marked effect on the trauma survivor’s emotional state. It is also part of the reason why people who have experienced significant trauma often have either lapses in memory surrounding the traumatic event(s) or keep re-experiencing them. 

How We Treat Trauma at Cottonwood Tucson

Just some of the trauma treatment modalities we utilize at Cottonwood Tucson include:

  • Somatic Experiencing Therapy: This trauma treatment uses the body’s own “fight or flight” mechanism to help trauma survivors process their experiences.  Somatic Experiencing Therapy is especially helpful in helping people cope with triggers. 
  • Wim Hof Breathing Method: This stress reduction technique, developed by Dutch extreme athlete, Wim Hof, helps oxygenate blood, induce the relaxation response, lower blood pressure and cortisol levels, and a lot more. This makes it invaluable for people with anxiety and other trauma-related symptoms. 
  • HeartMath: Also known as Heart Rhythm coherence feedback, this treatment is a form of biofeedback that teaches trauma survivors how to control their body’s physiological response to stress (the “fight or flight” response). 

Cottonwood Tucson Offers Trauma-Informed Treatment and More

Cottonwood Tucson has been dedicated to helping people live better lives for more than a quarter century. Our luxury mental health treatment facility lies in the desert foothills just outside Arizona’s Saguaro National Park. If you or someone you love could benefit from our landmark trauma treatment program, we’re ready to help. 
Cottonwood Tucson wants to help you or your loved one transcend trauma. Let’s talk. Contact us anytime, 24 hours a day at (888) 433-1069.

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