Your brain is the most complex organ in the human body, and yet we know surprisingly little about it. Researchers are constantly finding new information about how it works and what it does, and they are beginning to draw connections between the brain and mental health. One such connection is to trauma. The brain is a complicated organ, one that has an amazing ability to heal and bounce back from trauma. But some people’s brains never fully recover, and they are left with a lifetime of pain and suffering. This blog will explore the neuroscience behind trauma, and what we can do to help.
What is trauma?
Everyone has heard the expression “it doesn’t matter how big or small, each scar is unique.” This is particularly true for those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health condition that often results in flashbacks and intrusive, upsetting memories, as well as trouble sleeping, concentration and self-control. What is the brain response to trauma? In order to understand what happens to the brain when people suffer from trauma, it’s important to understand the brain response to trauma, or what researchers call the sensory processing system. According to Prof. Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northeastern University, trauma changes your brain so profoundly that you have a biological explanation for the psychological symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.
What is the brain?
The brain is a network of complex and connected brain structures that is larger and more complex than the human nervous system. The brain has the largest single-cell structure on the planet, with about 100 billion cells and 100 trillion connections. The brain works on more than just memory and decision making, it also contains specialized areas that are involved with memory, emotions, learning, language, coordination, and so much more. Connections between brain areas can change in response to events such as trauma, grief, stress, fear, and more. These changes are mediated by our genes and our experiences, and therefore the brain must be able to learn from these changes. The brain has the unique ability to restructure itself, adapting to the input it is getting.
What happens in the brain during traumatic events?
“Severe, unexpected stress and physical violence is known to trigger stress-related circuits of the brain that alter emotion processing and inhibit recovery. This physiological shift can play a direct role in the appearance of emotional and cognitive symptoms in trauma patients.” (Source) Have you ever felt yourself getting angry after a trauma? The brain takes it from there. According to clinical psychologist Tara Dakides: “We all have an emotional regulation system, an emotional circuitry, to help us regulate our emotions and be aware of our stress levels. This is how our body knows when it’s time to pay attention, when we need to be calm and quiet, or when we need to call up our best self and find our zen. ….
What is a traumatic event?
A traumatic event is any event that can cause great emotional distress, fear, or sadness. As the person is going through this experience, he or she is usually experiencing what are known as fight-or-flight responses. These are the same kinds of emotional responses that many of us experience when we’re in a dangerous or threatening situation. The brain often experiences these kinds of responses even when it’s not really a threat. For instance, when we see someone you know in an ambulance on the road, your brain automatically initiates a defensive response. If you’ve ever been to a scary movie and then jumped when someone jumped out at you, you may have experienced a fight-or-flight response as a movie viewer. So how does a traumatic event affect the brain?
What are the signs of trauma?
Trauma can take many forms — from physical and sexual abuse, to loss of a loved one, to facing natural disasters. It can lead to a host of mental health issues — severe depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and even schizophrenia. What is trauma? Trauma is the sudden and massive stressor that causes a physical response in the body. The stress response causes your heart to race, your skin to break out in a sweat, and you may experience a sudden spike in your blood pressure and heart rate. The stressor is often too big, too fast, too unexpected, and too painful to be able to control or even survive it. Trauma can also damage the brain in ways that are long lasting.
What can we do to help with trauma?
Trauma is a broad term that includes physical, emotional and sexual abuse, neglect, abandonment, low self-esteem, racism, and living with a mental illness. However, many people suffering from trauma don’t fit neatly into those categories. A person who’s been physically abused by a family member could also be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which is a result of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disorder that commonly occurs with repeated trauma. A person with PTSD suffers from panic attacks, anxiety, and irritability. And it is also believed that people with social anxiety or social phobia could also be suffering from PTSD.
Normal Trauma is part of the human experience, and we all experience trauma from time to time. It happens in relationships, in schools, and at work, in families and relationships, and environments. There are 3 stages of trauma: Sensation stage: People are generally scared, worried and confused after a traumatic event. They may feel a racing heart, sweats and nausea, and become dissociative or distant. Emotion stage: The person feels a range of emotions from intense anger and fear to sadness and guilt. They may exhibit fear-related behaviors like freezing, defensiveness, and avoidance. Interpersonal stage: A few days after the trauma, they may feel a range of emotions including numbness, shame, regret, anger and isolation.