How trauma affects the brain

As a clinical hypnotherapist and trauma specialist, I often get asked this question:

How does trauma impact the brain?

Research is on-going about the effect of trauma. Neuroscientists do know that several changes occur in the brain and body. And as a result of these changes, people may find it hard to live the life they would like to have. You may feel trapped, overwhelmed, helpless, and unable to cope. And sometimes, symptoms appear later in life in response to other stressors.

So if you find it hard to concentrate and problem solve as an adult, possibly as the result of trauma that happened earlier in your life.

How trauma affects the brain

Why trauma affects learning and memory

The hippocampus, the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex and the brain stem are the four main areas of the brain that are affected by trauma.

When we feel frightened or threatened, the brain signals the body to release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin. Cortisol damages cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is responsible for laying down and integrating memory. Research has shown that people with chronic trauma have a smaller hippocampus. A smaller hippocampus may affect learning and memory. The brain is simply amazing as it can change and grow as it is ‘flexible’ or ‘plastic’ as we call it in neuroscience. The brain can build new connections between brain cells, building and strengthening healthy neural pathways with different experiences after a trauma.

Trauma therapy can help to process the trauma so the brain can start to regenerate and function properly.

Why do you feel like you are reliving traumatic moments over and over again

In response to trauma, another stress hormone called adrenalin gets released into the bloodstream. Adrenalin fires up the amygdala and triggers it. The amygdala is responsible for establishing emotional memory; it is an essential component in detecting emotions like fear. The overactive amygdala can ‘burn’ emotionally charged events into our brain. And as a result, the details surrounding the experience can be ‘fuzzy’ due to the under-active hippocampus.

So you may feel as though you are reliving traumatic moments over and over again; your past pushes into the present.

Why you find it hard to focus, problem-solve and feel present

The third area of the brain that comes into play when understanding the impact of trauma is the prefrontal cortex, located in the very front of the brain. And this region facilitates thinking, planning, and solving problems. Brain imaging shows it goes “blank,” far less activity is happening when people undergo a trauma or relive traumatic memories. So this is why people say: “My mind went blank” in stressful situations. The amygdala triggers the fight/flight/freeze response. But the planning and thinking section of your brain isn’t working correctly, which makes it difficult to focus, problem-solve, and feel present.

Why traumatic memories can appear vivid and fuzzy at the same time

During an acute traumatic event, the brain stem automatically responds to the threat by activating the fight, flight, or freeze responses. You become ready to fight or run, or you feel frozen on the spot. Inside the brain and the body, it is a very high-stress environment with increased levels of stress hormones. And this is why traumatic memories can appear vivid and fuzzy at the same time; it simply has not been processed correctly by the brain.

You can see the impact of trauma on brain scans; it is real. It can cause the electrical waves from the different parts of the brain to not jointly work together, EEGs show this. The good news is that different therapy techniques can help to remedy the damage and in turn, make the person affected by trauma, live a more fulfilling life.