The Effects of Trauma on the Brain

By Hannah Tishman, LMSW

Trauma can have a significant impact on the brain, leading to symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks, difficulty adapting to change, avoidance, and intrusive thoughts. It is important to understand how trauma changes brain chemistry, so mental health professionals can provide the best treatment, and in turn, help clients reduce difficult and intolerable symptoms.

Our brains have a fight or flight response intended to protect us from suspected danger. The nervous system steps in and activates, while other functions dissipate until the threat ceases. During a fight or flight response, three hormones are released, including Adrenaline, Cortisol, and Norepinephrine. The function of these hormones is to provide a surge of energy to escape danger and focus attention, shift blood flow to more essential areas needed to survive such as muscles for running, and to regulate bodily functions that are not needed in that moment.

The major parts of the brain that are impacted by trauma include the amygdala, hippocampus, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. The reason individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder have difficulty deciphering the past from the present is due to lost volume in the hippocampus (the area of the brain responsible for memory) after experiencing the trauma. This may also lead individuals to avoid specific situations that could trigger trauma. For example, someone may avoid parking lots after having had a car accident in one. The amygdala (plays a role in processing emotions) may also be enlarged, leading to difficulty managing moods and emotions.

 Now that you have a basic understanding of how the brain can be impacted by trauma, it is important to know that it is possible to reverse some of the post-traumatic stress symptoms in efforts to better regulate emotions and memory. The brain can be rewired if appropriate treatment is acquired sooner than later post-trauma. There are several types of treatments that can help those who have experienced trauma. Some options include trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR), guided imagery, and medication. Trauma can show up in many ways in our minds and bodies. Know that there are resources available and although your symptoms may feel unmanageable right now, there are ways to heal from your trauma and it is okay to reach out for help.

Hannah Tishman is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you are looking for support in finding solutions to enhance your overall wellness, contact Cobb Psychotherapy by calling 718-260-6042 or emailing reception@cobbpsychotherapy.com, and see how therapy can help.

Elizabeth Cobb