Your Brain on Trauma
Updated: Jul 29
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, affects about 10% of women and 4% of men over their lifetimes (1). Trauma is a response to a significantly distressing event in our lives. These events may be physical or sexual abuse, the sudden loss of a loved one, natural disasters, and community violence. People don’t just experience trauma emotionally and psychologically. Newer research shows that trauma has significant lasting effects on the brain as well as our bodies.
The brain serves two purposes: to keep us alive and safe from harm.
In trauma survivors, the parts of the brain that have evolved to monitor for danger are overactivated. Even the slightest sign of danger, either real or perceived, can trigger a stress response. This stress response can be accompanied by intense unpleasant emotions and overwhelming sensations (2). People can experience multiple negative effects when the brain experiences a high level of arousal for long periods. These may include insomnia, chronic fatigue and exhaustion, and difficulty concentrating.
The brain is like a three-story house.
The first level is our “reptilian brain” and it houses our core basic functions such as breathing and survival. The second level is our emotional brain. This is where we store memories and link them with emotions, both positive and negative. The top level of our “house” is our frontal cortex. This level is where advanced thinking and problem-solving take place. When we experience a traumatic event, the brain shuts down our ability to access the different floors of our house. This is our brain’s natural way of coping and protecting us from the trauma we are experiencing. This process looks different for everyone and manifests itself in a wide variety of trauma responses.
Constantly perceiving threats where there aren’t any can also impact our ability to connect with others and have meaningful relationships. The ability to be vulnerable and feel a full range of emotions is key in making authentic connections with others, something that is incredibly difficult in those who have experienced trauma. In Bessel van der Kolk’s classic book The Body Keeps the Score, he discusses the impact trauma has on our ability to feel:
“In response to the trauma itself, and in coping with the dread that persisted long afterward, these patients had learned to shut down the brain areas that transmit the visceral feelings and emotions that accompany and define terror. Yet in everyday life, those same brain areas are responsible for registering the entire range of emotions and sensations that form the foundation of our self-awareness, our sense of who we are. What we witnessed here was a tragic adaptation: To shut off terrifying sensations, they also deadened their capacity to feel fully alive.” (2)
How is trauma treated?
The best trauma treatment is one that integrates the parts of our “house” that have been shut down, helps us reprocess and make sense of what happened, and remove or lessens the emotional response when remembering the trauma. This often involves a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR). The clinicians at Calm Mind Counseling Center are trained in both modalities of treatment. If you find yourself experiencing traumatic stress, our clinicians can help.
Greenberg, Melanie. How PTSD and Trauma Affect Your Brain Functioning. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-mindful-self-express/201809/how-ptsd-and-trauma-affect-your-brain-functioning
Popova, Maria. The Science of How Our Minds and Our Bodies Converge in the Healing of Trauma. https://www.themarginalian.org/2016/06/20/the-body-keeps-the-score-van-der-kolk/