How Trauma Changes The Brain

After any type of trauma (from car accidents, natural disaster to domestic violence, sexual assault, to child abuse) the body and brain change. Each cell records memories and every embedded trauma-related neuropathway has the opportunity to repeatedly reactivate.

One of the most difficult aspects for survivors of trauma is understanding the changes that occur. In order for them to really make progress, themselves or the person helping them overcome this tragic situation must have some sort of idea on how the brain works.

The 3-Part Brain

The Triune Brain model, introduced by neuroscientist Paul D MacLean, explains the brain in three parts:

  • Reptilian (brain stem): This innermost part of the brain is responsible for survival instincts and autonomic body processes.
  • Mammalian (limbic, midbrain): The midlevel of the brain, this part processes emotions and conveys sensory relays.
  • Neommalian (cortex, forebrain): The most highly evolved part of the brain, this area outer controls cognitive processing, decision-making, learning, memory and inhibitory functions.

During traumatic experiences, the reptilian brain takes control, shifting the body into reactive mode. The brain stem orchestrates survival mode by shutting down all non-essential body and mind processes. The sympathetic nervous system increases stress hormones and prepares the body to fight, flee or freeze.

There Are 4 Categories of PTSD Symptoms

These categories include intrusive thoughts (unwanted memories), mood alterations (shame, blame, persistent negativity), hyper-vigilance (exaggerated startle response) and avoidance (of all sensory and emotional trauma-related material). These all cause confusing symptoms for survivors who don’t understand how they’ve suddenly become so out of control of their own minds and bodies.

Trauma can lead to unexpected rage or tears, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, shaking, memory loss, concentration challenges, insomnia, nightmares and emotional numbing that can hijack both an identity and a life. The problem isn’t that the survivor won’t “just get over it” but that he/she needs time, help and the opportunity to discover their own path to healing in order to do so.

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