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Here’s what happens to your brain when you experience trauma

Published on:26 June 2021, 13:00pm IST
The unmanaged impact of trauma can adversely affect your brain’s function. From memory to our emotional health, here’s how our brain gets affected by trauma.
Grace Bains
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The effect of trauma can significantly impact brain function. Image courtesy: Shutterstock
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So many of you must have experienced some or the other form of trauma during your lifetime. When we experience a traumatic event, be it a car accident, a loved one’s demise, or the end of a relationship, our brain goes into a fight or flight mode. The brain’s default response in any traumatic event changes to protect us from any danger, shutting down non-essential body and brain functions until the threat ceases. 

These changes to the brain function are not just neurological in nature, but also physical as the volume and size of various parts of the brain get impacted, such as the memory gland after a traumatic event.

This is particularly seen in patients diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). There are 3 parts of the brain that get affected:

  • Hippocampus: It is the centre that takes care of emotion and memory but it shrinks in the event of a traumatic event
  • Amygdala: It is the part of the brain that looks after creativity and due to trauma, its function increases
  • Anterior Cingulate: It is the centre for functions like planning and self-development but its function decreases due to trauma
Did you know? Individuals who experience trauma may find difficulty to learn and remember information. Image Courtesy: Shutterstock
Here’s how the brain gets impacted after a traumatic event

The intensely emotional impact of a traumatic event can cause a long term impact on brain function:

1. Stressful memories

A horrific life event that causes trauma can make your brain recall it, causing physiological stress response and PTSD. The core reason for this is that after a traumatic event, the brain may continuously secret stress hormones stimuli, making you relive the stressful event over and over again. The continuous secretion of stress hormones can also cause the hippocampus to shrink in size, the gland responsible for memory and emotions.

2. Reduced sense of control on emotions

Trauma causes the amygdala function of the brain to go on overdrive. This is the brain’s centre for producing creative, survival and emotional thoughts. Increased activity in the amygdala can cause the brain to make you relive the trauma as if it is happening for the first time. The enhanced sensory overload can overwhelm you, causing a slew of negative thoughts and difficulty controlling emotions. 

3. Distinguish past from the present

The enhanced amygdala function suppresses the prefrontal cortex function. This means that after a traumatic event, you might be less capable of controlling your fear, making you possibly stuck in a constant reactive state. A stressful traumatic event can also reduce hippocampus function, making your ability to distinguish between past and present events diminish. 

Trauma comes uninvited and traumatic stress can be associated with lasting changes in brain areas. Image courtesy: Shutterstock
Here’s what you can do to manage the aftermath of a traumatic event

Seeking comprehensive medical care and therapy is the most prudent approach to manage the aftermath of a traumatic event. Additionally, you can adopt to nourish your mental wellbeing:  

Thought control

Due to neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to form and reorganize nerve cell connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following a trauma) of the brain, the more we feed negative thoughts to our brain, the more likely they will surface and occur. Hence, it’s important to consciously feed the brain with positive thoughts and use techniques to regulate overwhelming emotions as and when they arise, for instance by exercising or meditation.

Positive affirmations

Positive affirmations are an expression that is repeated, often without thinking about it, used to introduce to the subconscious a thought that can motivate you, remind you of your positive attributes and provide the confidence needed to accomplish goals. Try visual affirmations, preferably in the present tense, for example, “I will heal and lead a fulfilled life.” Visualization provides a way to implant pictures in your subconscious that complement the words you say.

So, while it seems overwhelming to manage stress and the effect on the brain after a traumatic event, remember that you have the ability to overcome it and come out stronger. 

Grace Bains Grace Bains

Grace is someone who likes writing enough to make a living out of it. When she isn’t writing, you will find her having chai and reading a book.