How Emotional Trauma Affects Your Brain
Wednesday, October 23 2013 Michele Rosenthal
I'm here to tell you that trauma affects your brain. Even so, have you ever had someone say to you any of these things:
- "PTSD isn't real; it's all in your head"
- "Just get over it already!"
- "Only veterans get PTSD"?
I speak all over the country about PTSD symptoms. Mostly, these audiences are comprised of civilians: survivors, caregivers and healing professionals. Sometimes, too, there are people who have no PTSD connection but have been invited to hear the presentation. Inevitably, whether it's before the presentation has started or after it has finished someone addresses me to say some variation of one of those three things (on a really awful day, all three!).
Why don't people "get" what it means to struggle with PTSD? Why can't they understand that trauma affects the brain as well as the mind?
Essential PTSD Information
As a PTSD survivor, I hated those comments while I was in recovery. They made me feel powerless, invalidated, stupid, pathetic and as if people believed I was actually choosing to feel as miserable as I did.
Now, as a healing professional, I make it a point to educate everyone I meet about what symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder are, where they come from and what can make them go away.
I don't think most people intend to be unkind or dismissive when they say the things. We, as survivors, hear them as hurtful. I think they really just don't get PTSD, or what it means to live with it. A few years ago, I wrote 10 Tips for Understanding Someone with PTSD. It was meant to inform outsiders what it means to be on the inside.
3 Facts on How Trauma Affects the Brain
Those ten things were my own ideas about why we behave the way we do and what we need while we're working on coping. It occurs to me now there is even more basic information that we, as survivors, need to spread around: The science of PTSD, which we know now more than ever. So, today, three important facts about how trauma affects the brain that every survivor should know -- and share with those who don't understand:
During trauma your amygdala (an almond-shaped mass located deep in your inner your brain) is responsible for emotions and actions motivated by survival needs. In threatening situations it:
- increases your arousal and autonomic responses associated with fear
- activates the release of stress hormones
- engages your emotional response
- decides what memories are stored and where they should be placed around the cortex
- applies feeling, tone and emotional charge to memory (including the creation of ‘flashbulb memory’: when strong emotional content remains connected to a visceral experience of fear or threat.)
Your amygdala tunes to dominant experiences. The fear induced by trauma makes a deep imprint on your amygdala and hypersensitizes it to danger, which makes it seek out threat everywhere. In some PTSD cases, the amygdala has actually been shown to enlarge through excessive use. (In healing, this change often reverses.)
Adjacent to the amygdala, the hippocampus is responsible for the formation, organization, storage and retrieval of memories. Technically, it converts them from short-term to long-term, sending them to the appropriate parts of your outer brain for storage. Trauma, however, hijacks this process: the hippocampus is prevented from transforming the memories and so those memories remain in an activated, short-term status. This stops the memories from being properly integrated so that their effects diminish. In some cases, when the hippocampus' function is suppressed, it has been shown to shrink. (In healing, this change often reverses, too.)
Lastly, the prefrontal cortex (located in the front, outer most layer of your brain) contributes two important elements of recall: Your left frontal lobe specializes in storing memories of individual events; your right frontal lobe specializes in extracting a theme or main point from a series of events. After trauma, a few things can occur:
- your lower brain processes responsible for instinct and emotion override the inhibitory strength of the cortex, so that the cortex cannot properly stop inappropriate reactions or refocus your attention.
- blood flow to the left prefrontal lobe can decrease, so you have less ability for language, memory and other left lobe functions.
- blood flow to your right prefrontal lobe can increase, so you experience more sorrow, sadness and anger
There are many reasons why we know PTSD is not "all in your head", and why you can't "just get over it". With the three offered above, I'm hoping we can start a conversation around proof of what you and I know to be true: if PTSD were easy to heal from, you would have done it yesterday. Since it isn't, respect must be paid and support given.