The Impact of Trauma on Brain Health

Every years, millions of Americans experience some kind of serious trauma. In some cases, traumatic experiences have an emotional or psychological impact.

In others, they have a physical impact. The two types of trauma have one thing in common. Namely, they can alter the normal function of your brain.

Many people who go through traumatic experiences suffer no serious long-term effects. However, for a substantial percentage of people, such experiences lead to significant harm.

Much of that harm occurs because of how trauma affects your brain. Knowledge of what can happen to you organ is vital to protecting your health and seeking needed treatment.

What Is Trauma?

Trauma is an umbrella term for experiences that put a strain on your ability to cope with change. When you are pushed up to or beyond your limits, your mental reactions may include things such as:

  • Fear
  • Hopelessness
  • Helplessness
  • Guilt
  • An inability to stop thinking about a traumatic event
  • Jumpiness or jitteriness
  • Nightmares
  • A sense of numbness
  • Lack of your normal ability to feel pleasure
  • Anger and/or angry outbursts
  • Unusual agitation or emotional sensitivity
  • A desire to withdraw from other people
  • A sense of detachment from your surroundings
  • Distrust toward other people

You may also experience a range of physical reactions. Examples here include:

  • Stomach or bowel distress
  • Unusual headaches
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Fatigue
  • A pounding or rapid heartbeat
  • High sweat production
  • Rapid or shallow breathing

All of these reactions are related to the effects of stress. Stress often lasts for a relatively short amount of time. However, it can also linger long-term.

Generally speaking, short-term stress will not harm your health. In stark contrast, long-term stress can contribute to both mental and physical health problems. All stress reactions originate inside your brain.

How Do Emotional and Psychological Trauma Affect the Brain?

How Do Emotional and Psychological Trauma Affect the Brain

Trauma is often emotional or psychological. During this kind of traumatic event, you may suffer no serious or lasting physical harm. Nevertheless, what happens to you triggers notable changes in the way your brain functions.

What types of trauma have a mainly emotional or psychological impact? Events that may fall into this category include:

  • Living through fires, floods or other natural disasters
  • Childhood neglect or emotional abuse
  • The death of family members or other loved ones
  • Witnessing acts of violence toward others

Even events with a clear physical aspect may have a mostly psychological effect. That includes such things as:

  • Sexual assault or rape
  • Physical assaults
  • Automobile crashes

What Happens Inside Your Brain

When you experience traumatic stress, changes take place in multiple parts of your brain. Three of the most important affected areas are your:

  • Amygdala
  • Medial prefrontal cortex
  • Hippocampus

Each of these structures plays an essential role in normal brain health. Your amygdala serves as a sort of threat detector. Once activated, it allows you to react to danger and keep yourself safe.

The amygdala is controlled, in part, by your medial prefrontal cortex. Among other things, this second area flashes a kind of “safe” signal to your amygdala when danger passes.

Your hippocampus functions as a seat of memory and learning. You use these two abilities to help distinguish between safe and dangerous situations.

During and after a traumatic event, your amygdala, prefrontal cortex and hippocampus all activate. This activation is driven by certain chemicals that occur naturally inside your brain.

In everyday stressful situations, there are relatively small increases in activity. However, during traumatic events, a much higher level of activity can occur.

This does not lead to amygdala damage or damage in the other two areas. However, other kinds of significant consequences may occur.

In most cases, overactivation of your brain does not last for long. Things gradually return to normal as you gain distance from a traumatic event. However, in some people, activity remains elevated instead of tapering off.

Trauma and the Development of PTSD

The single most classic example of the possible impact of lingering stress reactions is posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. This disorder occurs when those reactions continue to harm your ability to function 30 days or more after an event.

PTSD Brain Vs. the Normal Brain

PTSD Brain Vs. the Normal Brain

PTSD’s effects on the brain lead to such things as:

  • A sense of being on high alert, even when no real danger is present
  • Intrusive, unwanted thoughts about a traumatic event
  • A powerful urge to avoid any kind of trauma reminder
  • Negative thoughts and moods that alter how you see yourself and others

How Does Childhood Trauma Affect the Brain?

Adults often go through traumatic events after their brain development is complete. This completed development helps give you the tools needed to cope with trauma. Unfortunately, children lack this kind of protection.

Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Lifelong Consequences of Trauma

The same brain areas affected in adults are also affected in children. However, exposure to trauma at any early age can lead to much more serious consequences.

Not all children react in the same way. Still, for any given child, potential problems include:

  • Lack of the normal ability to turn the amygdala “off”
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Increased fear of unfamiliar environments
  • Impaired memory development
  • Learning problems

Trauma you experience as a child can leave you unusually susceptible to mental health problems in adulthood.  But the effects of childhood trauma do not have to last a lifetime.

With help and support, a child’s brain can correct itself and regain function over time. And adults affected by childhood trauma can recover with appropriate treatment.

How Does Physical Trauma Affect the Brain?

An accident or any other kind of sudden physical trauma may have a direct impact on your brain. Doctors refer to this impact as a traumatic brain injury, or TBI. The effects of a TBI are sometimes relatively mild. Potential symptoms of this type include:

  • A concussion with or without a brief loss of consciousness
  • Changes in your normal mood or behavior
  • Unusual headaches
  • A falloff in your typical energy levels
  • Altered sleep habits
  • Problems with your memory or other higher mental functions

These symptoms can also occur in people who have a moderate or severe traumatic brain injury. However, more dangerous problems can also appear in these cases, including:

  • Numb or weak legs and arms
  • Recurrent vomiting
  • A persistent or worsening headache
  • Dilated pupils
  • Seizures
  • Speech slurring
  • An inability to coordinate your movements
  • Worsening agitation or mental confusion
  • The unresponsive state of unconsciousness known as a coma

A severe TBI can impair you for life or kill you.

How Does Trauma Affect the Brain: Dual Diagnosis

Dual diagnosis is a quite common condition in people with a mental illness. It occurs when those affected also have a diagnosable substance problem.

Research shows that, for women in particular, trauma may play a role in the onset of dual diagnosis. In addition, the negative impact of trauma extends to every aspect of affected women’s quality of life.

Treatment for Trauma

Emotional or Psychological Trauma

Emotional or Psychological Trauma

The appropriate treatment for trauma depends on the source of your problems. In most cases, treatment for emotional or psychological trauma in adults is not necessary.

The majority of men and women recover their equilibrium on their own following a traumatic event. But this is not always the case. In addition, children exposed to trauma have much higher chances of developing problems.

If you have PTSD or the related condition acute stress disorder, you need help to recover. Typical treatments for these illnesses include forms of therapy such as:

  • Prolonged exposure therapy
  • Stress inoculation therapy
  • Cognitive processing therapy

All of these options are based in a technique called cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. Your treatment plan may also include antidepressants and other medications.

Children with other kinds of trauma-related conditions tend to benefit from different treatments. Family-oriented therapy is common.

This therapy focuses on building stronger bonds between affected children and their parents of other caretakers.

Traumatic Brain Injury

Doctors typically recommend rest to help you recover from a mild TBI. Over time, you can slowly continue your normal daily routine.

Treatment for a moderate or severe TBI begins by stabilizing your condition. Once this step is taken you may need surgery or medication to recover as much as possible.

You may also need various kinds of therapy to help restore your physical  and general function.

How Does Trauma Affect the Brain: Get More Information

All traumatic events can have a short-term effect on your brain. For a substantial percentage of people, longer-term effects are also possible.

Trauma produces its impact, in part, by putting your system on high alert. If you cannot turn this alerted state off, mental health problems may follow.

PTSD serves as the number one example of the potential consequences. Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of trauma. Still, both children and adults can recover with help.

To learn more about trauma and treatments for trauma, contact Emerald Isle. Our in-house experts will help you understand your risks.

We also provide the vital services needed to recover from trauma-related illnesses. For more information, call us today.