How Trauma Changes the Brain
Any type of trauma changes your brain. Car accidents, abuse, combat, natural disasters, etc., all leave a footprint on your brain’s cellular makeup. Every cell records memories and every embedded trauma-related memory has the chance to suddenly reactivate its neuropathway and no longer lie dormant. Some changes affect us initially but fade, others start to change and affect our lives. Understanding how trauma affects our brains and how these symptoms show can help toward recovery.
The 3-Part Brain Model
1. Reptilian (brain stem): innermost part of the brain responsible for survival instincts and autonomic body processes
2. Mammalian: midlevel of the brain processes emotions and conveys sensory relays
3. Neomamalian: most highly evolved part of the brain, as this area controls cognitive processing, decision-making, learning, memory and inhibitory functions
During a traumatic experience, the reptilian brain takes control and shuts down all non-essential body and mind processes, a.k.a. survival mode. During this time the sympathetic nervous system increases stress hormones and prepares the body to fight, flee or freeze. Normally once the threat is over the body goes back to a restorative mode and shifts the brain back to normal.
Twenty percent of trauma survivors develop some form of PTSD. With this, the shift from reactive to responsive mode never happens. Instead, the person is in a constant survival state. These cause confusing symptoms for people who don’t understand how they’ve suddenly become so out of control in their own minds and bodies.
According to scientific research, after trauma your brain goes through biological changes that it wouldn’t have experienced if there had been no trauma.
On the surface, changes to the brain can seem disastrous; the truth is that all of these changes can be reversed over time. Patients are unique and everyone finds different paths to recovery, though understanding the brain can better help us understand the process.