Many of us have had a closer relationship to trauma this year than we normally do. Over the past year, the pandemic has completely changed the way we live and socialize, and it’s also led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in the US. Witnessing loss on this scale is traumatic. Changing the way you live your whole life is traumatic. If you’re feeling a lot of complex, conflicting emotions these days, you’re in good company. Many of us are dealing with the trauma of the last year while continuing to go on with our lives – what other choice do we have? If you’ve noticed that you’re more irritable, emotional, tired, or on alert, those could all be signs you’re dealing with the effects of trauma. When we think of trauma, we typically think of surviving some sort of disaster or accident, but trauma can build up over time too. The trickiest thing about trauma is that it can change the way our brains work. While it’s scary to think that something can change your brain, it can actually be helpful to be aware of how trauma affects the brain so that you can cope more effectively after trauma.
To start off, let’s talk a little about how our brains are set up. There are different sections of the brain that all serve different functions. Some areas control things we don’t think about consciously, like breathing or digesting. Other areas focus on things like vision, hearing, language comprehension, motor skills, memories, emotional regulation, or executive functioning. When we experience trauma, the parts of the brain that are impacted the most are the sections that regulate emotional regulation, memories, and survival instincts (like fear).
Here are three ways that trauma affects your brain:
When you experience trauma, especially over a period of time, your survival instincts may be all out of whack. You may not be able to differentiate between a threat and something totally safe. You might experience fear more often than you used to. The section of your brain that controls fear, the amygdala, is often extremely active after traumatic experiences, which can leave you feeling on edge or in danger. This constant reminder of fear may remind you of your trauma, which leads you to feel even worse. You might experience chronic stress, vigilance, and fear, because your brain is confused about how to respond. When your brain is traumatized, it’s hypervigilant for more threats – it wants to protect you. But this constant state of being on edge can be exhausting. This state of hyperarousal can also lead your body to produce extra stress hormones, like norepinephrine and adrenaline. These hormones keep your body in a state of fight or flight, which can be helpful in a real emergency. However, when it’s happening all the time you’ll feel constantly on edge or afraid which can keep you from doing things you want to do.
Another section of your brain that is changed by trauma is the part that controls memories, the hippocampus. Brain scans of people with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) actually shows that the hippocampus can change in structure or function after trauma. These changes can make it harder to recall memories, or it can bring traumatic memories to the forefront of your mind. The hippocampus also helps us differentiate between past and present memories, so when it’s hyperactive it can dredge up painful memories of your trauma. When your mind is constantly replaying traumatic memories, it can be scary, exhausting, and triggering.
After trauma, the prefrontal cortex in your brain can also change. This is the section of your brain that deals with emotional regulation and attention and decision making. Instead of becoming hyperactive, like the amygdala sending out stress hormones, the prefrontal cortex becomes hypoactive, or less active. Instead of regulating your emotions and using reason to make decisions like it normally would, your prefrontal cortex doesn’t intervene. Normally, if your amygdala is hyperactive and sending out stress signals, your prefrontal cortex can decide if the threat is real and calm things down if it’s not. However, trauma makes it so the prefrontal cortex doesn’t do its job to calm things down or regulate your emotions, so you’re left on a rollercoaster. The prefrontal cortex’s lack of regulation can also leave you feeling reactive anger and impulse control issues, which can make things difficult for you socially and can be dangerous.
Your brain is an incredibly complex structure, so when there is damage to it, whether physically or through trauma, it can have serious effects. Since we’re all dealing with a lot more trauma than we’re used to these days, you might find yourself dealing with some of these effects in your everyday life.