Trauma’s Impact on the Brain

            There is a big push in the mental health community to research and understand the impact of trauma on mental and physical health. Thanks to books like The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, What Happened to You? by Bruce Perry, and What My Bones Know by Stephanie Foo, many people have become more aware of the varied definitions of trauma and how it contributes to our overall wellbeing. We are moving in the direction of working from a trauma-informed care perspective. Hallelujah.

It is important to understand that trauma affects the physical brain. I like to differentiate for clients that the brain is the mechanism we can see, touch and study (whereas the mind refers to our ability to think, feel, and engage in physical activity). The brain is the physical organ in our head that supports the functions of the mind.

Trauma is especially impactful on the prefrontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus. Ongoing trauma is associated with lasting change in these brain areas.

When there is a potential threat, the amygdala sends an instant message to the hippocampus, activating the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is the unconscious system that regulates bodily functions such as digestion, respiration, and heart rate. This allows the body to respond to a threat in an extremely short period of time (useful for our ancestors when they had to run from lions).

The amygdala processes the information faster than the prefrontal cortex, so our body may have responded before we have been able to think logically about it. The amygdala also releases cortisol and adrenaline, hormones that prepare us for fight or flight. When there is no longer a present threat, our body can return to homeostasis. However, if the system is malfunctioning, there will still be arousal and the person will feel their heart rate elevation, increased breathing, and general unrest, because of the activation of the fight or flight system.

When people are experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, panic episodes, and anxiety disorders, it is very difficult to activate the prefrontal cortex to help calm the whole system down with logical and soothing thoughts and feelings.

The good news is that we have begun to make progress of many different forms of healing. Trauma work must include engaging the prefrontal cortex and the whole body. I have seen profound progress in my work with clients through the use of Adaptive Information Processing, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and narrative therapy. Research has also shown yoga, meditation, music, art, to have had a big impact when working with trauma.

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