Sometimes when we go through a traumatic event (a terrifying event that overwhelms our coping mechanisms), it can leave us 'traumatised'. But what does that actually mean, and what's going on in the brain when it happens? To be traumatised means that our brain is unable to feel safe. Parts of it shrink, and other parts become overactive, making us feel panic, fear, and anxiety even if there is no danger. In this state, we can become unable to process the trauma that caused these changes.
The Brain's Response to Trauma
When a person experiences a traumatic event, their brain's natural response is to initiate the "fight or flight" response. This primal survival mechanism involves the release of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which prepare the body to react to a perceived threat by sending energy to the arms (fight) or legs (flight). While this response is essential for survival in the short term, prolonged exposure to trauma, or experiencing significant traumatic events can lead to lasting changes in brain structure and function.
Neuroplasticity: Rewiring the Brain
The brain's ability to adapt and change is known as neuroplasticity. As we learn and experience new things, the brain forms new 'pathways' (brain cells and the links between them). The more we use those new pathways by learning or experiencing that thing, the stronger and easier to access they become. For example, when we learn to play catch, the brain creates pathways in the brain dedicated to playing catch. To begin with, the pathways are small and weak - we may keep dropping the ball or throwing it too hard. However, as we practice, the pathway becomes stronger. Eventually we catch the ball most of the time, and can throw it back without even thinking about it. Trauma can impact neuroplasticity, causing the brain to rewire itself in response to the traumatic experience. Neural pathways associated with fear, hypervigilance, and anxiety may become overactive, while areas responsible for regulating emotions and decision-making may be affected. This rewiring can contribute to symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, and heightened stress responses.
The Amygdala: The Brain's Danger Detector
The amygdala, a small, almond-shaped region deep within the brain, plays a crucial role in processing emotions, particularly fear and threat responses. In individuals who have experienced trauma, the amygdala may become hypersensitive, leading to heightened emotional reactivity and difficulties in distinguishing between real and perceived threats. This can result in increased anxiety and emotional distress. Imagine the amygdala like a smoke alarm, it's trying to keep the house from burning down by detecting fire. However, in people who have experienced trauma, and those who are anxious, it becomes hypersensitive. It goes off when we've accidentally burned the toast, or even if someone goes to light a candle. It sees the lighter, associates this with a raging fire, and sets the alarm off, even though there's actually no danger.
The Hippocampus: Scattered Memories
The hippocampus plays an important role in processing and storing memories, allowing us to retrieve information about our experiences. During a traumatic event, the brain shifts its focus toward survival, often leading to fragmented or incomplete memories of the event. This phenomenon can result in flashbacks, dissociation, and difficulties in recalling specific details of the trauma. Prolonged access to cortisol, the stress hormone, can cause the hippocampus to physically shrink. It becomes less able to tell the difference between memories of the past and the present, which can lead to re-experiencing the feelings we had when the event happened as if it's happening in the present.
The Prefrontal Cortex: Higher Brain vs. Lower Brain
The prefrontal cortex (our higher brain), responsible for decision-making, impulse control, and emotional regulation, can be adversely affected by trauma. Connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and other brain regions may weaken, impairing a person's ability to manage emotions and make rational choices. This can contribute to difficulties in coping with stress, regulating mood, and forming healthy relationships. When the amygdala is hyperactive, it can essentially shut down the prefrontal cortex, allowing the emotional 'survival-focused' lower brain to take over as logical thinking is overtaken by emotion.
The Stem: Your Primal Brain
The brain stem is responsible for all of our automatic functions such as breathing and heart rate. When we are experiencing trauma or feel as though we're in danger, our breathing becomes shallow and rapid, our muscles tense, and our heart rate increases. This can make us feel threatened and continue to make us feel even more scared without being conscious of it. This is why when we focus on slowing our breathing, through mindful coping strategies, it calms us down and reduces panic.
Healing from Trauma
At Healing Roots Counselling & Psychotherapy, I recognise the profound impact that trauma can have on the brain and overall well-being. Understanding the brain's response to trauma is a crucial step toward providing effective support and healing. If you have experienced trauma, as an experienced and qualified therapist I am here to help you navigate your healing journey. Through evidence-based therapies and compassionate guidance, I am committed to empowering individuals to rebuild their lives and restore their mental health. Using a trauma-informed approach I can help to not only understand the narrative of what happened and how it has affected you, but also to process and overcome its effects. Get in touch today to take the first step towards healing and resilience.