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Mental Health

How Trauma and PTSD Change the Brain

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PTSD

This article explores how traumatic experiences can impact our physical and mental health. When we experience trauma, our brain changes physically, which can lead to symptoms of PTSD, such as painful thoughts, intense emotions, bodily changes, and behavioural changes. However, the good news is that our brain can also heal through neuroplasticity.

We can rewire our brains and restore our inner sense of safety and clarity through techniques such as yoga, mindfulness, and cognitive and body-based therapies. Research has shown that mindfulness practices can even reverse the effects of trauma on the brain. With small steps and the right support, healing from trauma and moving forward is possible.

Key Takeaways

  • Traumatic experiences can impact our physical and mental health.
  • Our brain changes on a physical level when we experience trauma, leading to symptoms of PTSD.
  • We can rewire our brains and heal from trauma through neuroplasticity and techniques such as mindfulness and therapy.

Understanding Trauma and PTSD

Traumatic experiences such as abuse, assault, or witnessing violence or tragedy can leave people constantly on edge. PTSD can impact emotions, stability, and relationships. Trauma can also have an impact on physical and mental health, and these are really common experiences for many people. They’re due in part to four ways that your brain changes after experiencing trauma.

When you experience something threatening or dangerous or witness something happening to someone else, your brain activates the fight-flight-freeze response, essentially the survival mode in the reptile part of your brain. This response helps keep you safe, shuts down thinking, releases a surge of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, and sends blood to the big muscles so you can fight or run away.

After the threat has passed, your nervous system should return to the restorative, rest, and digest modes. But with PTSD, something interferes with your ability to feel safe. Your brain and body stay stuck in this mode, so even when you’re safe, your brain and body stay tense. They’re on high alert, and you don’t ever or don’t often revert back to that restorative mode.

When trapped in a constant trauma response, people with PTSD experience four types of difficult symptoms. These include painful thoughts, intense emotions, bodily changes, and behavioural changes. These symptoms show up because, after experiencing trauma, your brain changes on a physical level.

The amygdala is an area of the brain that scans for threats and connects memories and emotions. After trauma, it becomes much more active, sensitive, and more likely to alert to turn on that alarm when it perceives a threat.

The hippocampus is the part of the brain that processes emotions and memories. After trauma, stress hormones essentially kill off cells in the hippocampus, making it less effective at processing emotions. This also makes it hard for the brain to distinguish between the past and the present, so people who’ve experienced trauma may have missing memories, fragmented memories, or painful memories that pop up when they don’t want them.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that essentially handles higher order thinking and planning rational thought and language. This part of the brain becomes disrupted by constantly reverting back to that fight-flight-freeze part of the brain or the reptile part of the brain.

The constant flooding with stress hormones keeps the body locked in an activated sympathetic state or the fight-flight-freeze state. It’s also known as hyperarousal, so you feel constantly on edge, jittery, and stressed out until you get exhausted, then you have adrenal fatigue.

However, your brain can heal too, and this is called neuroplasticity. Your brain adapts the trauma response as a functional way to deal with real threats and dangers. Your brain’s not out to get you; it also has a built-in ability to change in response to healing and perceived safety. The amygdala can learn to chill out, the hippocampus can relearn to process emotions, and your nervous system can strengthen its ability to revert back to that parasympathetic or that rest and digest response.

We can target these structures in the brain and in the body through cognitive work and through body-based work. Some types of treatments include CBT, EMDR, and somatic experience. These are all treatments that help your brain and body rewire and restore your inner sense of safety and clarity.

The Fight, Flight, Freeze Response

When a person experiences a traumatic event, their brain triggers the fight, flight freeze response. This response is essentially the survival mode in the reptile part of the brain. It helps keep the person safe by shutting down thinking, releasing a surge of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, and sending blood to the big muscles so they can fight or run away. This gets the heart pounding, speeds up breathing, and prepares the person to take physical action to stay safe.

However, with PTSD, something interferes with the person’s ability to feel safe, and their brain and body stay stuck in this mode. Even when they are safe, their brain and body stay tense and on high alert, and they don’t often revert back to that restorative mode. The person with PTSD experiences four types of difficult symptoms: painful thoughts, intense emotions, bodily changes, and behavioural changes.

The fight, flight freeze response is triggered by the amygdala, an area of the brain that scans for threats and connects memories and emotions. After trauma, the amygdala becomes much more active, sensitive, and likely to alert to turn on that alarm when it perceives a threat. Survivors become less tolerant of stress, and little things make them feel more anxious.

Brain scans indicate that after trauma, the hippocampus shrinks. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that processes emotions and memories. After trauma, stress hormones essentially kill off cells in the hippocampus, making it less effective at processing emotions. This also makes it hard for the brain to distinguish between the past and the present, leading to flashbacks and painful memories that pop up when they don’t want them.

The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that handles higher order thinking and planning, rational thought, and language, becomes disrupted by constantly reverting back to that fight, flight, freeze part of the brain or the reptile part of the brain. When the person is stuck in fight, flight, freeze or hyper vigilance, the thinking part of the brain gets turned down, making it hard for them to use reason to think through their traumatic memories or sensations.

The constant flooding with stress hormones keeps the body locked in an activated sympathetic state or the fight, flight, freeze state, leading to chronic illnesses like autoimmune disorders, low functioning of the immune system, diabetes, obesity, muscle tension, chronic pain, problems with sleep, gut, and heart health.

Four Types of PTSD Symptoms

Traumatic experiences such as abuse, assault, or witnessing violence or tragedy can leave people feeling constantly on edge, and PTSD can impact their emotions, stability, and relationships. Trauma can also have an impact on physical and mental health, and these are really common experiences for many people. There are four types of difficult symptoms that people with PTSD experience:

  • Painful Thoughts: This includes upsetting memories, flashbacks, and memory loss. People with PTSD may experience painful memories that pop up when they don’t want them, and when these memories pop up, they re-trigger the amygdala. This perception of memories as a new threat sends off that red alert that restarts that trauma cycle of the fight-flight-freeze response and all those physical changes and stress hormones.
  • Intense Emotions: People with PTSD may feel helpless, anxious, ashamed, scared, jumpy, angry, or persistently negative or just feeling numb.
  • Bodily Changes: These include increased heart rate, feeling jittery or on edge, startling easily, unexpected rage or tears, short and shallow breathing, panic attacks, insomnia, or nightmares.
  • Behavioural Changes: This usually avoids anything related to the trauma or its memories. People with PTSD may avoid triggers that remind them of the traumatic event, such as certain people, places, or situations.

These symptoms show up because after experiencing trauma, the brain changes on a physical level. The amygdala becomes more sensitive, the hippocampus shrinks, the prefrontal cortex shrinks, and the broader nervous system is impacted. However, with the right treatment, people with PTSD can learn to heal and reverse these symptoms.

Physical Changes in the Brain After Trauma

Traumatic experiences can cause physical changes in the brain. These changes are not simply damage but rather adaptations that the brain makes in response to the experience that the world is not safe. The brain adapts to help individuals avoid future dangers. When experiencing trauma, the brain changes in four ways.

Firstly, the amygdala becomes much more sensitive and more likely to turn on the alarm when it perceives a threat. Survivors become less tolerant of stress, and little things make them feel more anxious. Common things like loud noises, people entering a room from behind, or seeing someone who reminds them of an aggressor can all trigger that threat response, even when the loud noise is just fireworks or when that person with a beard is just a waiter.

Secondly, brain scans indicate that after trauma, the hippocampus shrinks. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that processes emotions and memories. Stress hormones essentially kill off cells in the hippocampus, making it less effective at processing emotions. This also makes it hard for the brain to distinguish between the past and the present, which is essentially what a flashback is. People who have experienced trauma may have missing memories, fragmented memories, or painful memories that pop up when they do not want them.

Thirdly, the prefrontal cortex shrinks. This is the part of the brain that essentially handles higher order thinking and planning rational thought and language things like that. This part of the brain becomes disrupted by constantly reverting back to that fight-flight freeze part of the brain or the reptile part of the brain. When stuck in fight-flight freeze or hypervigilance, the thinking part of the brain gets turned down. This makes it hard for individuals to use reason to think through their traumatic memories or sensations. It makes it harder for them to override that danger signal that the amygdala and hippocampus are sending and harder to remind themselves that the danger is not real.

Lastly, the constant flooding with stress hormones keeps the body locked in an activated sympathetic state or the fight-flight-freeze state. It is also known as hyperarousal. Being stuck in this state of an overactive dysregulated nervous system leads to a lot of strain on the body and can contribute to chronic illnesses like autoimmune disorders, low functioning of the immune system, diabetes, obesity, muscle tension, chronic pain, and problems with sleep, gut, and heart health.

In conclusion, trauma can cause physical changes in the brain that can lead to a cycle of PTSD symptoms. However, the good news is that the brain can heal through neuroplasticity. The amygdala can learn to chill out, the hippocampus can relearn to process emotions, and the nervous system can strengthen its ability to revert back to that rest and digest response. There are various treatments available to help individuals rewire and restore their inner sense of safety and clarity.

Amygdala’s Role in PTSD

The amygdala is a small almond-shaped structure located deep within the brain’s temporal lobe. It plays a crucial role in the perception and processing of emotions, particularly fear and anxiety. After experiencing trauma, the amygdala becomes much more active and sensitive, and more likely to perceive threats. This heightened sensitivity can trigger the fight, flight, or freeze response, even in situations where there is no real danger.

In individuals with PTSD, the amygdala becomes hyperactive and less tolerant of stress. This means that even minor stressors can trigger a traumatic response, leading to intense emotions, flashbacks, and other symptoms. The amygdala’s sensitivity to perceived threats can also lead to avoidance behaviours, as individuals try to avoid situations or triggers that might activate their trauma response.

Research has shown that mindfulness practices, such as meditation, can help to reduce the activity of the amygdala in individuals with PTSD. This can help to reduce the intensity of their trauma response and improve their ability to tolerate stress. Other treatments, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), can also help to reduce the activity of the amygdala and improve symptoms of PTSD.

Overall, the amygdala plays a critical role in the development and maintenance of PTSD. By understanding how the amygdala contributes to PTSD symptoms, individuals can better understand their own experiences and work with their healthcare providers to develop effective treatment plans.

Hippocampus’ Role in PTSD

The hippocampus is an important area of the brain that plays a significant role in processing emotions and memories. After experiencing trauma, stress hormones can kill off cells in the hippocampus, making it less effective at processing emotions. This can lead to difficulty distinguishing between past and present, resulting in flashbacks and painful memories that can re-trigger the amygdala, causing the fight-flight-freeze response.

Additionally, the connection between the hippocampus and the amygdala gets stronger, maintaining the fear response over time, even if the individual cannot remember the traumatic event. This can lead to short-term memory loss and difficulty speaking about the trauma.

The prefrontal cortex, responsible for higher order thinking and rational thought, also becomes disrupted by the constant reverting back to the fight-flight-freeze response. This makes it harder for individuals to process their traumatic memories and think clearly and rationally.

However, the good news is that the brain has the ability to heal through neuroplasticity. The hippocampus can relearn to process emotions, and the amygdala can learn to become less sensitive. Treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, and somatic experiencing can help rewire the brain and restore an inner sense of safety and clarity. Mindfulness practice has also been shown to be correlated with growth in the hippocampus and shrinking of the amygdala, effectively reversing the effects of trauma.

Prefrontal Cortex’s Role in PTSD

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that handles higher order thinking, planning, rational thought and language. After experiencing trauma, the prefrontal cortex shrinks, which disrupts the ability to think through traumatic memories or sensations. When an individual with PTSD is stuck in fight, flight or freeze mode, the thinking part of the brain gets turned down, making it harder to override the danger signal sent by the amygdala and hippocampus.

The prefrontal cortex is responsible for processing emotions and memories. When the hippocampus, the part of the brain that processes emotions and memories, shrinks due to stress hormones, the brain has a hard time distinguishing between past and present. This can lead to flashbacks and the re-triggering of the amygdala, which perceives memories as a new threat and sends off the fight, flight or freeze response.

The prefrontal cortex is also responsible for language and communication. When it shrinks due to trauma, it can make it difficult for individuals to speak about what happened and think clearly and rationally. This can make it harder for individuals with PTSD to escape the cycle of trauma without treatment.

In summary, the prefrontal cortex plays a crucial role in PTSD. Its shrinking due to trauma can disrupt higher-order thinking, make it harder to process emotions and memories and make it difficult to communicate about traumatic experiences. Treatment, such as cognitive and body-based therapies, can help rewire and restore the brain’s ability to process trauma and regain a sense of safety and clarity.

Nervous System’s Role in PTSD

Trauma can have a significant impact on the nervous system, leading to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When a person experiences a traumatic event, their brain activates the fight-flight-freeze response, which is essentially the survival mode in the reptile part of the brain. This response helps keep the person safe by shutting down thinking, releasing a surge of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, and sending blood to the big muscles so they can fight or run away.

However, with PTSD, something interferes with a person’s ability to feel safe, and their brain and body stay stuck in this mode. Even when they are safe, their brain and body remain tense, and they don’t often revert back to the restorative mode. This constant trauma response can lead to four types of difficult symptoms, including painful thoughts, intense emotions, bodily changes, and behavioral changes.

These symptoms show up because, after experiencing trauma, the brain changes on a physical level. The amygdala, an area of the brain that scans for threats and connects memories and emotions, becomes much more sensitive and likely to turn on the alarm when it perceives a threat. The hippocampus, the part of the brain that processes emotions and memories, shrinks, making it hard for the brain to distinguish between the past and the present. The prefrontal cortex, which handles higher-order thinking and planning, shrinks, making it harder for a person to think clearly and rationally. Lastly, the constant flooding with stress hormones keeps the body locked in an activated sympathetic state, leading to chronic illnesses like autoimmune disorders and low immune system functioning.

However, just like how the brain changes in response to trauma, it can heal too. This is called neuroplasticity, and it involves the brain adapting to healing and perceived safety. By targeting specific structures in the brain and body through cognitive work and body-based work, people with PTSD can rewire and restore their inner sense of safety and clarity. Treatments like CBT, EMDR, and somatic experience can help rewire the brain and restore a person’s sense of safety and clarity.

Overall, understanding the nervous system’s role in PTSD is crucial to developing effective treatments and helping people heal from trauma. Through neuroplasticity and targeted treatments, people with PTSD can learn to heal and overcome their symptoms.

Healing and Neuroplasticity

After experiencing trauma, the brain changes on a physical level. However, the brain also has the ability to heal and rewire itself through a process called neuroplasticity. This means that the brain can adapt to new experiences and create new pathways, which can help to reverse the symptoms of PTSD.

There are several treatments available that can help the brain and body to rewire and restore an inner sense of safety and clarity. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR), and Somatic Experiencing are all effective treatments that can help to rewire the brain and body.

Mindfulness practice is also a powerful tool that can help to reverse the effects of trauma. Studies using MRI scans of the brain have shown that mindfulness practice is correlated with growth in the hippocampus and shrinking of the amygdala. This essentially means that mindfulness can reverse the effects of trauma.

Other techniques that can help to rewire the brain include yoga, writing exercises, and grounding techniques. These techniques can help to turn on the prefrontal cortex, which can clarify that in the present moment, the individual is safe. This can help the hippocampus to process through memories, which sends a message to the amygdala that the individual is safe.

It is important to remember that healing and neuroplasticity take time and effort. However, with the right treatment and techniques, it is possible to rewire the brain and restore an inner sense of safety and clarity.

Techniques for Healing and Rewiring the Brain

There are various techniques available to help individuals heal and rewire their brains after experiencing trauma. These techniques aim to target the structures in the brain and body that have been impacted by trauma and help restore a sense of safety and clarity.

One such technique is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to the symptoms of PTSD. CBT can help individuals develop coping skills and strategies to manage their symptoms and improve their overall well-being.

Another technique is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which involves recalling traumatic memories while engaging in specific eye movements or other forms of bilateral stimulation. This technique aims to help individuals process and reprocess traumatic memories in a safe and controlled environment.

Somatic experiencing is another approach that focuses on the physical sensations and bodily experiences associated with trauma. This technique involves gentle movements and exercises to help individuals release tension and trauma stored in the body.

Mindfulness practices, such as meditation and yoga, can also be beneficial for individuals with PTSD. These practices help individuals cultivate a sense of present-moment awareness and relaxation, which can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and stress.

Writing exercises can also be helpful in rewiring the brain. By writing about traumatic experiences, individuals can activate the prefrontal cortex and clarify that they are safe in the present moment. This can help the hippocampus process through memories and send a message to the amygdala that they are safe.

Overall, these techniques provide individuals with tools to manage their symptoms and rewire their brains after experiencing trauma. While the road to healing may be long and difficult, with the right support and resources, it is possible to recover and lead a fulfilling life.

Empirical Evidence of Brain Rewiring

Research has shown that the brain has a remarkable ability to change and rewire itself in response to healing and perceived safety. One example of this is the correlation between mindfulness practice and growth in the hippocampus, as well as shrinking of the amygdala.

MRI scans of the brain have shown that mindfulness practice, which involves focusing on the present moment and accepting one’s thoughts and feelings without judgment, can lead to growth in the hippocampus. This is the part of the brain that processes emotions and memories, and is often affected by trauma.

At the same time, mindfulness practice has been shown to lead to shrinking of the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that scans for threats and connects memories and emotions. After trauma, the amygdala becomes more sensitive and more likely to perceive a threat, even in situations that are not actually dangerous.

By practicing mindfulness, individuals can learn to rewire their brains in a way that allows them to better process emotions and memories, while also reducing the sensitivity of the amygdala to perceived threats. This can help individuals to feel more in control of their emotions and responses, and can reduce the impact of trauma on their daily lives.

Other treatments, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and somatic experiencing, have also been shown to help individuals rewire their brains and restore their inner sense of safety and clarity. Through a combination of cognitive and body-based work, individuals can learn to heal from the impact of trauma and move forward in their lives.

Conclusion:

In conclusion, traumatic experiences can have a significant impact on a person’s mental and physical health. When a person experiences trauma, their brain changes in four ways: the amygdala becomes more sensitive, the hippocampus shrinks, the prefrontal cortex shrinks, and the nervous system becomes dysregulated. These changes can lead to symptoms such as painful thoughts, intense emotions, bodily changes, and behavioural changes.

However, the good news is that the brain has the ability to heal and change through a process called neuroplasticity. By targeting specific structures in the brain and body through cognitive and body-based therapies such as CBT, EMDR, somatic experience, yoga, and mindfulness, a person can rewire their brain and restore their sense of safety and clarity.

Research has shown that mindfulness practice, in particular, is correlated with growth in the hippocampus and shrinking of the amygdala, which essentially reverses the effects of trauma. It is important to remember that healing and growth come from taking small steps towards recovery, and there is always room for change and improvement.

If you have experienced trauma, it is important to seek professional help and support from a therapist or healthcare provider. With the right tools and resources, you can learn to heal and overcome the effects of trauma, and live a fulfilling and meaningful life.

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