How Does Trauma Affect the Brain?

Trauma can be defined in many ways, and can be caused by many very different things. Individuals can experience trauma from sexual, verbal or physical abuse, from accidents and from war, to name just a few. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a lingering reaction in the brain after trauma has been experienced. PTSD, most commonly, occurs in veterans who have returned from war. However, it can be caused by many things and doesn’t not necessarily occur only in individuals in the military.

A common misconception about PTSD is that it is all in an individual’s head. In a sense it is, but the misconception perpetuates the belief that the individual chooses to be scarred by the past trauma, which is not true. Understanding PTSD necessitates the understanding of how trauma affects the brain. 

To start with, it is important to know the areas of the brain associated with memory, fear and fear responses. In this regard, you can also see some great information here. So, the amygdala is a small, almond shaped mass located in the brain. I is responsible for emotions and actions that tied to survival needs. In threatening, or fear inspiring situations the amygdala quickly increases body arousal and automatic processes in order to cope with fear. This can mean increased heart rate, increased respiration and the release of stress hormones. The amygdala also handles the storing of memories associated to traumatic experiences. It stores selected memories from the experience and also applies the feelings, tones and emotional charge to those memories. When a person is reminded of severe trauma, these memories are often recalled with the intense emotions of fear and threat nearly as sharp as they were in the instance of the occurrence.

The next part of the brain involved with PTSD is the hippocampus; it sits in the brain near to the amygdala. The hippocampus deals with the organization, storage and retrieval of memories. Normally, the hippocampus situates memories from short term, to long term, and accordingly diminishes the sensations associated with the memories so that they are not experienced intensely. When an individual suffers from the PTSD, certain functions of the hippocampus stop working. The memories become stuck in short term status which creates the feeling that the trauma has recently occurred, or even still is occurring. Also, the memories’ effects remain as intense and full as the day they were experienced. For soldiers who experienced war and suffer from PTSD, this means that the fear and threat they experienced in combat comes back to them as sharp and fresh as it was on the battle field.

The last part of the brain which reacts and functions with fear and trauma is the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is located at the front and top of the brain and contributes to two important parts of the recall of memory. Normally, the left side of the prefrontal cortex works to store memories and individual events while the right pulls out the main theme associated with the events. After trauma, these functions change. The cortex can lose the ability to properly stop intense reactions such as screaming, running, fighting or anything associated as a reaction to the trauma. It can also lose the ability to refocus an individual’s attention which means that they can remain stuck in the traumatic memory. With PTSD the prefrontal cortex also experiences a shift in blood flow. The left side blood flow becomes restricted, causing lessened ability for language and other functions. The right side, in contrast, experiences an increase in blood flow. This causes individuals to experience more sensations of sadness and anger.

Understanding the brain’s chemical and functional reactions in an individual with PTSD can greatly help for those around them to not only understand the damage they have experienced, but also help in the acceptance and healing process. PTSD is not easy to heal from and can take considerable time. Depending on the level of trauma that is experienced and processed, PTSD can be more intense in some individuals.