PTSD and brain trauma can affect how you function. Trauma affects 3 parts of the brain: the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex. In whatever form it may take, trauma is a fundamental experience that can shape the way that an individual views their world, other people, and themselves. This debilitating experience can alter one’s daily structure by introducing anxiety, fear, panic, and many other symptoms into one’s daily life. Trauma can make daily tasks difficult to accomplish, relationships hard to manage, and emotions difficult to articulate.
The effects of trauma on a person are extensive and directly impact certain areas of one’s brain. The parts of the brain impacted by trauma can make specific mental processes difficult and may lead to physical symptoms, stunting development in certain areas. Three parts of the brain affected most by trauma are the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex.
The Effects of Trauma on the Brain
The brain is a powerful thing yet is still susceptible to the long-lasting effects of traumatic experiences. However, these can stretch beyond just invasive thoughts, as trauma can rewire an individual’s entire method of thinking from the ground up, making the notions of just “getting over it” or “forgetting about it” unviable options for those suffering from trauma. Instead, the mind of a person suffering from trauma may be unable to process or relinquish these traumatic experiences, as they now dictate the person’s worldview, including their perceptions or interpretations of once-familiar things.
Trauma also shapes one’s mind to take on a “survival mode” above all else. Trauma can leave a lasting sense of danger in one’s mind and can shape the world into a hostile, unforgiving image. Those with trauma may feel constant anxiety, as their minds seem to be shouting that their very wellbeing is in jeopardy. This also causes emotional and physical safety to become their only priority. However, each part of the brain will react to this trauma in a unique way, all working to create the symptoms of the “PTSD brain” that follow traumatic experiences.
Trauma and the Hippocampus
The hippocampus is the part of the brain that is responsible for the creation and recollection of memories. However, under the effects of traumatic experiences, this part of the brain can begin to alter its regular functions in a few ways. For some, the hippocampus may block certain memories from one’s mind, making it difficult to uncover memories of past traumas as the brain tries to protect itself from its horrific imagery. Others may find that thoughts of traumatic experiences are invading their everyday life, being recalled with frequency and at inconvenient times.
The overwhelming nature of trauma can imbed itself into one’s ability to create and recall memories and reshape aspects of one’s memories to take on a more harmful or malicious tone. This is also the part of the brain responsible for reacting to stressors and triggers, creating associations between the things a person may see or hear and their past traumas.
However, for some, the damage to the hippocampus can also be physical, with extreme or unaddressed traumas physically altering the size of the hippocampus, stunting its growth.
Trauma and the Amygdala
The amygdala is the emotional center of the brain and is responsible for regulating one’s emotional responses to an array of different stimuli. However, if traumatic experiences damage this part of the brain, it can become challenging for one’s emotions to be monitored or processed logically, leading to extreme emotional reactions. This can be either drastic emotions that seem blown out of proportion or inexplicable emotions that may not align with what a person is experiencing. As a result, extreme emotional responses can become common as unregulated, extreme survival reactions. This may lead to prevailing feelings of intense depression, fear, and anxiety as the mind continues to dive deeper into survival mode because of these unregulated emotional responses.
Trauma and the Prefrontal Cortex
The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for one’s “higher thought.” This is where one’s rationalizing strategies come into play and allow a person to act with knowledge and intention rather than relying on immediate, instinctual reactions. However, traumatic experiences can also damage this part of the brain, making it difficult to access this kind of higher thinking while under such duress daily. This can lead a person to act irrationally or act without thinking of future consequences. The damage done to this part of the brain is also highly influential when it comes to individuals seeking relief from their PTSD symptoms and plays a part in deciding to turn to drugs or alcohol for this relief. The difficulty of engaging in this “higher mind” can lead to any number of irrational or illogical actions, or even associations and assumptions.
Despite the nature of one’s trauma, there are always ways to heal from traumatic experiences. Beginning with individual and group therapy and mindfulness practices, each person is challenged to take a breath and rationalize their thinking before taking action. Talking about one’s emotional responses in a safe setting can allow for an individual to begin rewriting their mental framework, actively challenging the modes of thinking that may be dictated by anxiety, fear, depression, or any other symptoms of PTSD.
Others may benefit from the use of medication-assisted therapy, helping to alleviate some of the drastic symptoms of PTSD to ensure that they can effectively engage in other therapeutic practices. This can also be particularly effective with desensitization techniques to objectively challenge one’s preconceived notions and assumptions after traumatic events by working to slowly and safely challenge an individual to face their trauma.
Somatic experiences and recreational therapies are also ways to get the entire body and mind involved, working to better understand how the damage done to the brain following a traumatic event has affected the other parts of one’s life. This helps to create a framework for an individual to explore their own identity and interests following trauma.