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How Does Trauma Affect the Brain?

by | Dec 7, 2020 | NEUROSCIENCE, TRAUMA

This is a picture of a woman wondering, "How does trauma affect the brain?"

According to the National Council for Behavioral Health, 70% of adults in the United States have experienced at least one traumatic event in their life.

Do you think you could be one of them?

Though only 70% of people have experienced trauma firsthand, everyone is affected by it in some way. Chances are, you know someone who has gone through a traumatic event.

These people could include your spouse, friend, coworker, or even yourself.

Wondering how trauma affects everyone, not just the ones who went through the event? You may even be asking yourself, how does trauma affect the brain?

Below, learn how your body reacts to these types of events and how you can help your loved ones.

What Is a Traumatic Event?

Getting stressed out is one thing, but traumatic events are an entirely different beast. How do we know the difference?

Both stress and trauma are types of responses to events happening inside or outside of the body.

Stress is usually a response to something that happens on a day-to-day basis. Stress factors can include getting laid off at work, overbooking your schedule, or cooking a large meal. These are things that are not out-of-the-ordinary but seem daunting.

Trauma is anything that causes immense distress. Most often, these are situations where things are not happening how they would in a normal situation.

Traumatic events can range as far as a car accident to the death of a friend. These events are notable by the effect they have on the person. Trauma can change how someone views the world around them.

While stress and trauma both upset daily life, it is important to know the difference between the two. Both stress and trauma can cause mood and attitude changes and increase your chances of experiencing poor mental health.

These changes affect not only the trauma victim, but also those around them. Family and friends may notice the victim being distant or pulling away from the things they enjoyed before.

How Does Trauma Affect the Brain?

Though trauma seems like merely an emotional response, it has more to do with your physical body than anything else.

Due to a survival response in our bodies, we react when threatened. This is where the “fight or flight” response kicks in. We must choose whether we are going to run away from the situation or fight what is happening.

Two lesser-known responses are “freeze and fawn.”

This is all because of the neural pathways in areas of the brain. When something triggers these neurons, they send signals, like emotion such as fear, throughout your body to let you know how to respond.

Sometimes though, the brain makes wrong pathways.

When someone goes through an emotional trial or something out-of-the-ordinary, the brain remembers. Until your mid-20s, your brain is constantly changing. It’s changing shape and forming new pathways.

Rather than recording to memory what really happens, the brain writes it down incorrectly. The brain that is responsible for making sense of trauma, makes up a story and sticks to that story, no matter if it is truly what happened. This helps to wrap your mind around the situation.

When you have several stressful situations or traumatic events, your brain will respond with whichever pathway your brain defaults to.

If you’re used to running away when things get tough, then your brain has mostly “flight” pathways. Or, if you’re used to lashing out when you get upset, then your brain has more “fight” pathways.

If your mind and body stop when you feel endangered you “freeze,” hoping to become invisible to the threat. But, if you find yourself cooperating with whoever is threatening you, then you “fawn.” Fawning is the attempt to do what is asked of you to appease the threat.

Which response sounds more like you?

Childhood Trauma

Many people struggle with trauma that began in their childhood, and those experiences can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Trauma at a young age falls under the category of adverse childhood experiences. These are experiences that occur under the age of 18 and cause life-long health risks.

But how does trauma affect the brain in childhood?

Adverse childhood experiences include neglect, abuse, emotional trauma, and family dysfunction. They fall into “traumatic events” because they are experiences that are out-of-the-ordinary. These events also include anything that triggers a “fight or flight” mentality in a child.

Dealing with trauma in your childhood can lead to mental illness and emotional difficulties later in life.

Dr. Dan Siegel views a healthy home as having a “yes brain.” Elements of a healthy home include:

  • Balance: embracing a holistic approach to children’s health
  • Resilience: being able to know what reaction to have
  • Insight: an understanding of ourselves and those around us
  • Empathy: caring deeply for another and carrying their emotions like our own

Having a “yes brain” means that in childhood, there were many positive interactions.

When there are more negative interactions in childhood, there are long-term effects. Children who have adverse experiences are more likely to have heightened fear response and mental health issues when they get older. This has to do with their perception of the world after a traumatic event.

Since trauma changes the way someone views life, children can grow up with a negative mindset. A common thought from adverse childhood experiences is that life will always be bad.

Children exposed to negatives experiences begin to think that is normal life. This way of thinking can lead to anxiety, depression, or addiction later in life.

Where to Find Hope

Looking at and dealing with trauma is hard. Whether you’ve had trauma in your life or know someone with trauma, you may not know where to look for help.

According to several studies, yoga and meditation are great places to start when looking for healing. Practicing mindful activities helps to connect the brain with the rest of the body. This provides restoration for a traumatized mind and body.

When you start reconciling an injured mind with the body, it can be therapeutic for every aspect of your life, including relationships.

Healing From Trauma

Now that you’ve asked, “how does trauma affect the brain,” are you ready to begin healing?

To start your journey, consider Modern Intimacy’s Revive and Thrive: Yoga, Therapy, and Healing program. This program is for all women who have experienced trauma.

You will heal while refreshing your body. Along the way, you’ll build a supportive community that understands your struggles.

Modern Intimacy is a group therapy practice, founded by renowned Psychologist and Sex Therapist, Dr. Kate Balestrieri. This inclusive blog is designed to provide a wealth of information and resources for mental health, relationships, and sexuality. Subscribe today to get the latest information from our expert contributors from all around the world.


Author Bio

Dr. Kate Balestrieri is a Licensed Psychologist (CA, FL, IL + NY), Certified Sex Therapist, Certified Sex Addiction Therapist, and PACT III trained Couples Therapist. She is the Founder of Modern Intimacy. Follow her on TikTok and IG @drkatebalestrieri and the Modern Intimacy team on IG @themodernintimacy.



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