What Happens to the Brain When We Experience Trauma?
It is impossible to live a life without experiencing the good and bad. Without the negative events and emotions, we may not experience some of life’s most important lessons. It is through mistakes and suffering, where we may overcome our greatest endeavors. But sometimes there are events that take a larger toll on our psychological and physiological selves.
When we experience a traumatic event, the amygdala is one of the first areas of our brain to react. This portion of the brain is crucial to our survival because it is mainly responsible for the way we emotionally respond to an event.¹
If the brain senses a threat, the amygdala will begin signaling the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. This increases one's heart rate, blood pressure, and rate of breathing.² These reactions will either prepare our bodies to confront the issue at hand or run away from it.
When the amygdala senses danger, it will react in such a quick way that the body will automatically respond before our brains have fully comprehended the situation. This occurs because it processes information faster than the frontal lobes, which are responsible for executive functionings.³ This includes the ability to plan, organize, and initiate voluntary movements.⁴
But this automatic response cannot be conducted without the aid of the hippocampus. The main role of the hippocampus is to regulate learning, spatial navigation, and memory.⁵
When we recall an event, we typically remember the beginning, the main event, and the ending. However, those who experience trauma may have a difficult time recalling an end to that event. Without consolidating an ending to a memory, the brain will be in a state where the event feels as though it never ended.
Retrieved from VSRao/Pixabay
When looking at the brain scans of those who have post-traumatic stress disorder, the amygdala was no longer able to make a distinction between the past and present.⁶ This means that when the trauma occurred, the event had caused such a grand stressor on the brain that the hippocampus was unable to consolidate an ending to that event.
As long as the trauma remains unresolved, the stress hormones will continue to be produced. And the emotional and physical responses to that event will persistently arise when the individual is triggered.
Due to this abnormal response between the amygdala and the hippocampus, it creates a connection between fear and memory.⁷ Furthermore, brain scans of those who have post-traumatic stress disorder have also displayed that recovery can only occur when the brain structures that malfunctioned during the event are fully restored.⁸
Practicing Vulnerability with Social Support
Whenever we have a bad experience, whether it be minor or severe, we have the desire to console either a friend or family about the matter. By having a social support system that can aid you through hardship is one of the key factors in overcoming stressful situations.
However, how one's social network reacts to the event can either have a positive or negative effect on the individual.⁹ Having a supportive response might allow the victim to feel validated in how they feel. In turn, it could lessen the impact of the event. But if the individual is faced with ridicule and hostility, it could add to the damage.
Psychologist, Terence Keane, conducted a study to observe the social behaviors of war veterans. It was revealed that those who did not have post-traumatic stress disorder were able to gradually incorporate themselves back into their social groups. Whereas those who persistently suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder were unable to. And continued down a path where their social networks deteriorated even more.¹⁰
Post-traumatic stress disorder does contribute to a difficulty in socialization. But having a lack of social support can also contribute to the onset of this disorder.
When looking at young, less-educated soldiers who fought in Vietnam, they were undoubtedly exposed to extreme experiences. But they were also more likely to have fewer social supports when they returned home. This may result in them having less of a chance to express the experiences they've been through. And these men, who lacked the social support, were at a higher risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder.¹¹
A more minor example would be if I was driving to work and someone severely cuts me off, it will inevitably trigger my amygdala because it was a threatening event. After I arrive at my destination, I may phone a friend to vent about what happened.
By retelling my perspective, I am, in a sense, reliving the event. And the more I retell and relive the event, the more I will be susceptible to experiencing the emotions that are tied into the memory. Through this repetitive practice, I can learn to become habituated to those emotions.
Seeking help is not an easy task. But if you have past experiences that affect your daily life, please consider seeking help from a psychologist that specializes in trauma. Talk therapy can be one of the many ways to begin the journey to recovery.
The Amygdala: Definition, Role & Function. (2015, October 26). Retrieved from https://study.com/academy/lesson/the-amygdala-definition-role-function.html.
Herman, J. M. D. (1997). Trauma and Recovery. Basic Books. Retrieved from http://220.127.116.11:8032/2015-3/115.pdf
Kolk, B. V. D. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books.
The State of Queensland. (2013, September 12). Brain Map Frontal Lobes. Queensland Health. https://www.health.qld.gov.au/abios/asp/bfrontal.
Dutta, D. S. S. (2019, August 21). Hippocampus Functions. News. https://www.news-medical.net/health/Hippocampus-Functions.aspx.
J. D. Bremner, J. H. Krystal, S. M. Southwick and D. S. Charney, “Functional Neuroanatomical Correlates of the Effects of Stress on Memory,” Journal of Traumatic Stress 8 (1995): 527–554.
T. M. Keane, S. W. Owen, G. A. Charoya et al., “Social Support in Vietnam Veterans with PTSD: A Comparative Analysis,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 53 (1985): 95–102.