The brain helps us adapt to events that have harmed us; it helps us to process the emotions we felt during and after those traumatic events. However, it is important to remember that the brain is not separate from the body. It has been harmed by the traumatic event, too.
After traumatic events, survivors are at risk of developing PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), a condition that results in intrusive negative thoughts, flashbacks, startle responses, nightmares, hyperarousal, sleep disturbances, changes in memory, and a reduced ability to focus on tasks. These symptoms and behaviors can result in reduced ability to cope with many of the day-to-day tasks that many of us take for granted. Unsurprisingly, this inability to cope can lead to depression and anxiety.
So, what is happening within the traumatized brain causing these symptoms, behaviors, and emotions? How can we make the changes that will enable us to heal the brain?
According to B.L. Parish, Brain Damage Caused by Trauma includes:
- Under-developed pre-frontal cortex (impairs executive functioning skills)
- Smaller than normal hippocampus (causing deficits in memory)
- Enlarged amygdala (affecting fear centre)
For example, when stressed the fear center (the amygdala) goes into hyperdrive but the areas of the brain responsible for thinking through problems, planning, and focus (the prefrontal cortex) are not working well.
When an acute trauma rears up, it is the damaged area of the brain stem that reacts too quickly due to elevated levels of stress hormones. This may cause people with PTSD to immediately get into fight, fight, freeze, or collapse mode. Trauma survivors may react quickly and may become angry and ready to fight or they quickly react by trying to run away from a traumatic encounter.
The good news is the damaged hippocampus has a great ability to regenerate. Social enrichment and new learning can help to heal the traumatized brain. Thus, healing can and does happen.
Self-care can improve emotional reactions. Meditation, mindfulness, yoga, and learning more about how trauma affects the brain can reduce stress responses and help create more positive beliefs about life. The neuroplasticity of the brain responds by increasing growth, by making healthier brain connections between brain cells, and by creating new healthy neural pathways based on healthier social experiences.
Mental wellness brings self-regulation of our emotions, a sign that the traumatized brain is adapting and healing and able to cope with changing and challenging new situations.
Bobbi L. Parish, MA, CTRC-S – International Association of Trauma Recovery Coaching