According to the CDC, nearly 61% of adults in the United States report experiencing at least one traumatic childhood experience. Furthermore, The VA indicates that 60% of adult men and 50% of adult women will experience at least one major trauma in their lifetime.
Experiencing trauma can impact your life in significant ways. For example, you may feel more anxious, depressed, or feel uneasy in a way you cannot quite explain. These feelings are a normal response to trauma though they may be difficult or painful to experience.
If you find yourself struggling with trauma, you are not alone. However, it can be helpful to understand how your trauma has impacted the brain and better understand how trauma can be treated.
But first, what is trauma? And how does it affect your overall development?
What is Trauma?
Trauma can be categorized into two types: “big T” and “little t” trauma.
“Big T” trauma is what you may typically think about as a traumatic event such as war, a natural disaster, or physical abuse.
“Little t” trauma impacts the brain in similar ways but could be missed because it may have felt like “normal” stress. “Little t” trauma might look like having an inconsistent caregiver, chronic relational stress, or feeling that your emotions were not taken seriously.
Both types of trauma have a similar impact on the brain and can be treated using similar therapeutic approaches. If you’ve experienced trauma, mental health professionals like therapists, counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists can support you.
How Trauma Impacts the Brain
According to neuroimaging studies, trauma impacts a few significant areas of the brain. Traumatic experiences impact the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex. Together, these areas of the brain function to regulate your brain and body’s stress response.
The amygdala is part of the limbic system of the brain. This is the area of the brain responsible for processing emotions and emotional behavior. The amygdala and limbic system can be triggered by fear, which is important to its role in processing trauma.
Trauma can cause the amygdala to become overactive. In this case, the brain can be hypervigilant and may perceive non-threatening situations as dangerous. When the amygdala is activated, you may feel like you are in a “fight or flight” mode. That's because this part is constantly scanning for danger, and it may react even if something is safe.
The amygdala stress response can be activated by many things, which can feel frustrating if you are not sure what triggered it. Trauma responses can often be triggered by sensory input such as:
Visual cues such as light or color
Physical feelings such as texture, temperature, or faster breathing
When the amygdala response has taken over, the parts of your brain that are associated with logical thinking are not accessible to you. You may struggle with making decisions, acting responsibly, or even planning the future.
The hippocampus is also part of the limbic system. The hippocampus is responsible for strong memories. In cases of trauma, you may have difficulty remembering certain details or even periods of time. This may be due to the impact of trauma on your hippocampus.
Traumatic experiences can impact the size of your hippocampus. In addition, chronic stress can damage the tissue of the hippocampus. Over time, this can impair your memory.
Trauma treatment modalities, such as EMDR show an increase in hippocampus volume and activity. What does this mean? Treating trauma effectively can change the size and activation of essential areas of the brain!
The Prefrontal Cortex
The prefrontal cortex plays a vital role in emotional regulation. When the prefrontal cortex is functioning as it should, it helps your body access your rational thinking, logic, and coping mechanisms.
When the limbic system is overactive, you are less able to access the coping tools that can help your body and brain calm back down after a stress response. Likewise, when the prefrontal cortex is under-active, you may feel like you are not able to regulate your emotions.
You know how your brain may have been impacted by trauma, so what do you do now? Even if things feel scary or frustrating, the good news is trauma can be treated. Mental health professionals can help support you as you heal from trauma. The American Psychological Association's list of evidence-based PTSD treatments as:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive Processing Therapy
Brief Eclectic Psychotherapy
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
Narrative Exposure Therapy
Treating trauma should be specific to each individual, as no experience of trauma is the same. A qualified mental healthcare provider can support you in finding the trauma treatment modality that is right for you. You may benefit from trying a few different approaches, and it could take time to find the right method of care.
Trauma impacts the brain, and you can heal from this impact. We are here to support you, regardless of your circumstances. Contact us today to learn more!