Three Ways Trauma Affects Your Brain
We know that trauma affects the brain. Science has proven that. Yet, 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?
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. 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.
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.
How Trauma Affects the Brain
The science of PTSD, which we know now more than ever, should be shared with every trauma and PTSD survivor. 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 memoriesand 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 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.
Rosenthal, M. (2013, November 27). Three Ways Trauma Affects Your Brain, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, June 16 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/traumaptsdblog/2013/11/three-ways-trauma-affects-your-brain
Author: Michele Rosenthal
I have been exploring PTSD because I think i have it and so do others.
I am amazed to read on the site that all i can do is "choose" not to have PTSD. I do see that some choice will affect things. However, the thing i got PTSD through is not something one can really tell everyone. Given that till now, im now 63, i did share on what i thought was "a need to know " basis. " However, i havent had one experience where i look back and think i am glad i told so-and-so. Not one. This makes me wonder if i should tell it to anyone in the future.
I was 15 when i came home from school went indoors expecting to see my father there. I went upstairs to go to the toilet as you do. Thats wen I saw him - hanging from the loft in one of mums dresses. To cut a long story short he was found to have died of asphyxiation while carrying out auto erotic sex !!!
I was so shocked i ran screaming downdstairs to my grans house next door crying my eyes out in a panic.
At school the reaction to news in the local paper was of titillation and wanting to avoid the daughter of someone like that.
As no-one has responded to me in a supportive way this makes me wonder if i should tell anyone i might get close to in future. This has raised more questions in the minds of those who support peoplre that i need therapy.
No-one tells everyone everything anyway. why should that be such a problem for me....
The truth is itd be so good to stop letting people stir me up and then convince me i need "help"
I never taken quite that stand before.
This keeps getting dug up cos my sister and i talk about it and i get emotional trying to explain it to her. shes an unemotional person as a scientist. My Dr has also seen me cry and puts that down to anxiety.
I "surrendered" and that lead me to a place where they do support those with mental health issues and thro it im getting a free course that might help me get work.
So good may come out of this episode but id like to let sleeping dogs lie as far as my father goes.
I find things that explore why we are as we are interesting n did long before my Dads death. but the issure probably is making use nof the experience as well as telling anyone in future.
I sincerely believe we are the only people that canhelp ourselves overcome our individual cases. (Happy to say I've been SSRI and anti-psychotic free since deciding to regain control
It is proving to be an excruciating emotionally charged and difficult chapter to summarise from 6 years of notes...as I am approaching it from a number of different perspectives...simultaneously so am working out a "pattern" and "sequence" .... cripes... a method to present my ideas systematically for the simplest and most needy people to grasp... if they are in too much distress while reading...
...anyway... I am after 2 things from you... or your readers and/or fellow victims of PTSD.
(1) Contact with an editor who has lived with PTSD or treats PTSD victims as intellectual equals.
(2) Contact with other PTSD victims who are also writing a book on their experience and struggles to heal from PTSD.
My PTSD stems from being raped at age 6 and I have had a couple more compounding events like my heart almost stopping...till I could hardly see or move...while lying on the roadside alone... then suffocating to blackness...people seem to think the terror is death...but I know the terror is knowing you are dying...afterward their is blackness of eternity...in my case until... they shocked me back to life in ICU...after the bypass op. I blanked that out for 6 months until having a total emotional and mental shutdown...but that is my book...
Please... if anyone could hook me up with other writers and editors who have walked in PTSD shoes... I will be most grateful. Thanks again... Rob
So I'm a 'drunkard', an addict, a "sinner". But I am suffering, just as you are.
And I am sensitive too...
st Easter! And I was in so much TRAUMA THAT I DID NOT FIGURE IT OUT UNTIL I GO HOME AND I OPEN MY BIBLE AND I SEE A PICTURE OF JESUS ON MY BIBLE BOOKMARKER! *AND, YAH IT WAS JESUS THAT WAS A TALKING TO ME! HE (JESUS) GAVE ME SOME ADVICE and that was for me to NOT EVER GO BACK! I KNOW WHAT HE MEANT, BECAUSE I'M STILL IN LOVE WITH MY AT ONE TIME VERY GOOD HUSBAND THAT I HAD BELIEVED IN AND I WAS SO VERY IN-LOVE WITH, AND I STILL AM IN-LOVE WITH THAT HUSBAND AND I ALWAYS WILL BE! And, I don't know but it felt very good when I/Joanie got to tell Jimmy that I NEVER WANTED A DIVORCE, and that I still LOVE HIM, AND THAT I ALWAYS WILL LOVE HIM, AND THAT I TOTALLY DO FORGIVE HIM!
I like to refer my clients to your site because it is such a useful resource. Thank you.
thanks , jen
A dissociative disorder can make recovery more complex, but I do know survivors with that element who make extraordinary process, so it is possible.
Onward toward freedom....
I call them my tools.
1. Notebook: Whatever memory pops up I write it down chances are if I didn't I would forget
2. Sense of smell/smellovision: If I could connect to prior events with a memory, i found certain smells from childhood doubled the chances I'd recall. I exposed myself to hundreds of smells. 1 a day. Some times I'd have no memory triggered. Sometimes there'd be a rush.
3. Tape recorder: only to be used when you have a rush of memories. Try to describe them.
4. Storytelling: I'd ask family and friends to describe the same event from different directions. Sometimes I'd not remember at all, sometimes it would quickly unlock.
5. Childhood revisitation: I'd spend a lot of time going to places from my childhood. I'd also go to toy events like toy fairs to find collections of toys from my past. Sometimes a toy would trigger dozens of memories out of sequence or order.
6. Coloring book: after every memory I'd sit down and pull out a coloring book and color with crayons. Yes that sounds very child like yes it works
I am surprisingly a lot better off than I was. My PTSD is so minimal I barely recognize it and severe symptoms don't pop up at all. Took a lot of work. But you know what? You are worth it.