Examining the Impact of Trauma on the Brain and How Therapy Can Help With Healing
Share This Blog
Seventy percent of adults in the United States have experienced trauma at least once in their lives. Trauma can impact different people in different ways. However, a traumatic experience does leave a lasting mark.
It's important to understand the impact of trauma on the brain and how therapy can help with healing. When you understand this, it can help guide you in knowing what you need to heal.
Are you ready to learn how you can begin to heal? Keep reading to learn more about trauma and the healing process.
What Is Trauma?
Trauma can be defined as any event or experience that overwhelms an individual's ability to cope. This can include events that are physically or emotionally distressing. It can come in many different forms.
However, it's important to note that not everyone who experiences trauma will necessarily develop mental health issues. However, recognizing the signs and symptoms of trauma is crucial in seeking help for those who need it.
Trauma-informed care is becoming increasingly recognized as an effective way to approach treatment. This approach emphasizes empathy and understanding when working with patients. In addition, it takes into account how their past experiences may impact their current behaviors and attitudes toward treatment.
Types of Trauma
It's important to recognize that trauma comes in many forms. It will look different for everyone. Some forms of trauma include the following:
Childhood Abuse or Neglect
Childhood abuse or neglect is one of the most common forms of trauma experienced by individuals.
It can lead to various mental health issues. These include:
Seeking help from a therapist who specializes in childhood trauma can provide tools for healing.
War and Other Forms of Violence
War and other forms of violence are some of the most extreme examples of traumatic experiences. The physical and emotional toll can be devastating, leaving deep scars on survivors. The constant threat to one's safety and well-being can cause changes in the brain that affect memory, emotions, and behavior.
Grief and Loss
Perhaps one of the most common sources of trauma is grief and loss.
Losing a loved one can be an incredibly painful experience that affects us both emotionally and physically. In fact, studies have shown that grief activates similar areas of the brain as physical pain does.
Natural Disasters and Accidents
Natural disasters and accidents also have the potential to cause trauma. This is due to their sudden nature and overwhelming impact. The unpredictability of these events can leave individuals feeling:
For example, the chronic stress associated with the pandemic contributed to trauma and changed how our brains functioned.
Witnessing Acts of Violence
Witnessing acts of violence might cause more severe PTSD than personal traumas because there may be intense feelings like guilt for being alive when others were not able to survive. The flashback moments are also much more vivid since it was something that happened directly in front of you. This makes healing much harder but still possible through therapy sessions.
Cultural, Generational, and Historical Traumas
This type of trauma impact racial, ethnic, and cultural groups. It’s essential to recognize that cultural, generational, and historical traumas play an important role in shaping our experiences. Acknowledging these traumas is crucial for healing both individually and collectively as a society.
Medical interventions, while necessary for healing physical ailments, can also cause trauma. For example, a hospital stay or surgery may be necessary to treat an illness or injury but can still be traumatic due to the unfamiliar environment and loss of control. Even routine medical procedures like blood draws and injections can trigger a trauma response in some individuals.
Growing Up: Childhood Trauma in Adulthood
Childhood trauma can have a lasting impact on an adult's life. Trauma experienced during childhood may manifest in various ways. It can impact the person in the following ways:
- Mental and physical health
- Overall well-being
Adults who experience childhood trauma may struggle with feelings of anxiety or depression that interfere with their daily lives. They may also develop unhealthy coping mechanisms. This can include substance abuse or self-harm to deal with their emotions.
Relationships are often affected by childhood trauma. Adults who experienced neglect or abuse from caregivers may struggle to form healthy attachments in adulthood. This can lead to difficulties in:
- Maintaining close relationships
- Trust issues
- Fear of abandonment
In addition to emotional struggles, individuals who experienced childhood trauma may also suffer from physical symptoms. For example, chronic pain or autoimmune disorders. These conditions are believed to be linked to the stress response triggered by past traumatic experiences.
The Brain and Trauma
Trauma can have a profound impact on the brain, affecting both its structure and function. When we experience trauma, our brains go into overdrive as part of the fight or flight response. This can lead to changes in how our brains process information and regulate emotions.
One area of the brain that is particularly affected by trauma is the amygdala. This small almond-shaped structure is responsible for processing emotional information and triggering fear responses. In people who have experienced trauma, the amygdala may become hyperactive, leading to heightened anxiety and stress.
When your amygdala becomes hyperactive, it can impact you in the following ways:
- Anxiety disorders
- Panic Attacks
Another area of the brain affected by trauma is the prefrontal cortex. This region plays an important role in decision-making, impulse control, and regulating emotions.
It's important to note that this part of the brain controls executive functions. Without the ability to complete these tasks, it becomes a challenge to lead a normal life.
Trauma can damage this area of the brain. This makes it harder for individuals to cope with stressful situations or make balanced decisions.
Reduced functioning in the prefrontal cortex can lead to the following:
- Impulsive decision making
- Learning problems
- Attention span issues
This region plays a crucial role in memory formation and consolidation. When someone experiences trauma, the hippocampus can become damaged or shrink in size. This part of your brain assigns meaning and associations to memories.
It also plays a significant role in helping with your stress response and emotional regulation. When your hippocampus becomes impaired, you may experience:
- Chronic Stress
- Health problems
- Interpersonal problems
- Impaired ability to cope with emotions and stress in healthy ways
Trauma Can Change the Brain
Chronic stress resulting from traumatic experiences can cause physical changes in the brain's structure. Studies have shown that prolonged exposure to cortisol - a hormone released during times of stress - can shrink areas of grey matter in certain regions of the brain.
The Long-Term Impact of Trauma
Trauma, unfortunately, goes beyond the now. It can have long-term impacts on physical and mental health.
Risk of Mental Health Disorders
One common long-term effect is an increased risk for mental health disorders. For example, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Trauma can also lead to physical symptoms such as chronic pain or illness due to stress-related inflammation.
The Impact of Trauma on Different People
Trauma affects people differently, and its impact can be influenced by a variety of factors such as:
- Personal history
Some individuals may experience symptoms immediately after the trauma. However, others may not exhibit any signs for days or even years.
People who have experienced trauma often suffer from physical and emtional symptoms. These can include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Gastrointestinal problems
The severity of these symptoms also varies among individuals.
Children who have experienced traumatic events are especially vulnerable due to their developing brains. They may experience developmental delays or difficulties with school performance later on in life. Adults who have experienced childhood trauma may struggle with forming healthy relationships or maintaining stable employment.
Gender plays a role in how people respond to trauma as well. Women are more likely than men to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, men tend to display more externalizing behaviors like anger and aggression.
Culture also has an impact on how people cope with trauma. Different cultures view mental health disorders differently. This can affect treatment options available for those affected by trauma.
Each person has unique circumstances related to their personal history, which may affect how they respond to trauma. The above factors and personal experiences will determine how someone reacts to a traumatic event.
How Does Therapy Help With Healing?
Therapy can be a crucial tool for individuals who have experienced trauma. It provides a safe and supportive environment. There, individuals can process their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors related to the traumatic event(s).
In addition to providing symptom relief, therapy also helps in addressing underlying issues that may have contributed to the development of trauma. For example, childhood abuse survivors may benefit from understanding how their past experiences impact their current relationships and self-esteem. War veterans may need support processing grief over lost comrades or transitioning back into civilian life after deployment.
While healing from trauma is not an overnight process nor an easy journey by any means, it is possible with the right treatment resources.
Do You Need Trauma Treatment?
Trauma can affect individuals in different ways. Some may experience extreme symptoms, while others may not show any visible signs of trauma at all. If you have experienced a traumatic event or series of events, it is important to understand whether you need trauma treatment.
One indicator that you might benefit from therapy for trauma is if the event(s) continue to impact your daily life and functioning. This could include struggling with:
- Nightmares related to the event(s)
- Difficulty sleeping
- Avoiding certain places or people associated with the trauma
Another indication that you should seek out therapy for trauma is if the symptoms have persisted for an extended period of time (typically longer than one month). If left untreated over time, these symptoms can worsen and lead to more severe mental health issues.
Self-Harm or Suicide
Trauma can lead to suicidal and self-harming behaviors. If someone has attempted self-harm or suicide, they should immediately seek help.
Different Types of Therapy for Trauma
Different types of therapy can help individuals recover from trauma. It's important to do your research and understand the best options for you.
One of the most popular forms is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT helps individuals identify and change negative thought patterns that may be causing distress. It also aims to change maladaptive behaviors that may have developed as a result of the trauma.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is another widely used method for treating trauma. EMDR involves recalling traumatic memories while simultaneously engaging in bilateral stimulation such as eye movements or hand tapping. This process helps desensitize the individual to the traumatic memory, reducing its emotional impact.
Exposure therapy is another form of treatment where an individual gradually confronts their fear or anxiety related to a particular trigger associated with their traumatic experience. This type of treatment can be challenging, but it has been found effective in helping people overcome PTSD symptoms.
Other therapies like art therapy and somatic experiencing are becoming more commonly used for treating trauma too. Art therapy encourages self-expression through various arts like drawing or painting, whereas somatic experiencing focuses on physical sensations within the body during moments of heightened stress.
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) is a relatively new type of therapy that has shown promising results in treating trauma-related conditions such as PTSD. TMS involves using magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain responsible for regulating mood.
In some cases, medication may be recommended as a part of trauma treatment. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications can help manage symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia that are often associated with traumatic experiences. However, it is important to note that medication should not be the sole form of treatment for trauma.
In addition to therapy and medication, support groups can also be an important aspect of healing from trauma. Connecting with others who have gone through similar experiences can provide a sense of community and understanding that may not be found elsewhere.
Understand the Impact of Trauma on the Brain and How Therapy Can Help With Healing
When you understand the impact of trauma on the brain and how therapy can help with healing, you can determine your path forward. Remember: Healing from trauma takes time. However, seeking therapeutic support early after experiencing a traumatic event can make all the difference in one’s life now and later down the line.
Are you ready to begin your path toward healing? At Embark Recovery, our goal is to provide a safe and supportive environment where you can heal. Contact us today to learn more.