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Trauma and the Brain

by Jen Barry, MSW, LCSW

Welcome to the first of what I hope to be many posts on my new blog: Trauma TALKS. This first post I want to start with the foundation of understanding trauma and how exactly does trauma impact the brain?!?

Our brains start growing and creating patterns of thinking from the moment we are born. Our environments and early experiences, along with our genetic make-up, are what help determine how our brain is wired and what the firing pattern of chemicals will be. This is what then causes thinking patterns, which become automatic.

Trauma causes the wiring and firing of the brain to change. This is so imperative to understand because as I mentioned above, the wiring and firing of the brain are what create our thinking patterns. Trauma essentially causes the brain to create distorted thinking patterns, ,which then impact our feelings and shape our view about ourselves and the environment that we live in. Those who have experienced trauma tend to have a negative view of the world around them- the world often seems like a dark and scary place, people are not to be trusted and the future looks bleak. These thought patterns tend to be very anxious, always worried, prepared for danger, jumpy, intrusive, and include both negative self-talk and a negative view of self.

Those who have experienced trauma tend to have a negative view of the world around them

Let’s talk a bit about why these are such common symptoms for those who have experienced a traumatic event or a history of chronic trauma. What the research has been showing is that trauma causes damage in 3 main parts of the brain: Prefrontal Cortex, Anterior Cingulate Cortex and the Amygdala. WOW, lots of long complicated words so let’s break it down so it’s easier to try and understand. The prefrontal cortex is important as it is responsible for organizing thoughts and information, helps manage empathy, and assists in the awareness of self and others. The Anterior Cingulate Cortex helps regulate our emotions. Finally, the Amygdala takes in our sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches and determines if this is a threat and how immediate is this threat.

There are many people who have heard the phrase “fight, flight or freeze” as a response to danger. In a way trauma causes damage to these regions of the brain and the “fight, flight or freeze” response stays on and doesn’t turn off. The traumatized brain is essentially always prepared for danger and is always reacting to what it interprets as immediate danger, therefore EVERYTHING is what we call a trigger for our brain to react and act. When our brains cannot tell the difference between real and imagined danger, and therefore cannot regulate the proper/functional emotional response, then this causes distorted automatic thought patterns. Over time, this creates a distorted view of self, others and the social environment.

The traumatized brain is essentially always prepared for danger

Why is this so important to understand? Well as we know, knowledge is power. The more understanding we have about ourselves or others in our lives who have experienced trauma and the confusing and complicated thoughts, feelings and behaviors we observe, the better we can empathize and support. This helps promote the healing process of the brain, as we can heal and change our own brains!

Next I will be posting about signs and symptoms of PTSD to explore the truths and myths…..