Trauma in the Brain

PTSD Part 3: Trauma in the Brain & Managing PTSD Symptoms

Estimated watch time: 8 mins 


Our response to stress or trauma is rooted in biology and the processes of our brains. These underlying neurological processes contribute to PTSD. Understanding how your brain and body respond to stress and trauma can help you learn how to manage these responses and identify self-care strategies as you work through trauma.

Video Materials:


Trauma in the Brain

In this lesson, we will review trauma in the brain. At the end of this lesson, you should have a greater understanding of the neurological processes that inform symptoms of PTSD, as well as interventions that can help mitigate those symptoms.

At its most basic, our response to a stressful situation, be it trauma or simple day to day stress. It’s a biological and automatic response.

When we talk about PTSD, what this means is that the traits associated with PTSD and other stress disorders are actually based on biological responses that were set up to help us survive. These processes within our bodies are in place to protect us but after trauma, they may become over activated.

Our experiences of PTSD don’t just stay with one aspect of our lives, but rather their emotional reactions and experiences, physical experiences and physiological experience. There’s a lot that goes on when we’re faced with something that threatens us.

So in this lesson what I’m looking for, is to provide you an understanding of the basics of how the brain reacts to trauma so that you will have a better chance to understand what’s actually happening and not feeling as overwhelmed because you recognize it for what it is, a biological and automatic response that may be a little overactive. We can then intervene accordingly.

Let’s look at the brain.

There’s a whole lot that goes on in the brain. It’s a very complex organ within the human body, but there are three parts of the brain that are generally associated with the stress response. There’s the amygdala, the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex.

The amygdala has a close association with the olfactory cortex, with the way we process smell. That becomes relevant in our experience of trauma. In the prefrontal cortex, there’s also this part of the brain called Broca’s area that’s associated with language and that also becomes relevant as we talk about the experiences we have with trauma.

Behavior, regulation, emotional memories, memory consolidation, decision making and learning all come into play as we react to trauma. Let’s talk about what actually happens when we have a traumatic event.

It’s important to know that traumatic memory is stored differently than standard memories. Standard memories can fade over time, details get a little fuzzy. Whereas traumatic memory often remains very sharp and clear over time. This is in part because of its association with the amygdala and less with the hippocampus. But there’s a lot of different factors that go in with that.

We also have difficulties concentrating or making decisions. And let’s talk a little bit about what we call the “amygdala hijack.” When our bodies react in distress, our amygdala kicks in and it becomes more reactive.

So what happens is, we have a strong emotional reaction to what is perceived as a stressor. There is a sudden onset of this reaction in our response. And it’s only after that episode in which we’ve responded that we realize whether or not that reaction was appropriate.

Additionally, you may find that your emotions and your feelings of frustration or aggression may be more reactive or more sensitive at this point in time. You may see that you have impulse control issues. You have a feeling, you act on it. Then in retrospect, you’re not sure why.

You may find you’re unable to put words to your experience. Some people have also talked about not doing anything or not saying anything when they’ve been in a traumatic setting and feeling guilty that they didn’t do anything or say anything. But these are actually associated with our prefrontal cortex, and that Broca’s area that I mentioned earlier is associated with our access to language so that gets compromised when we’re in a traumatic situation. So it’s not surprising that we have no words to explain or experience or that we didn’t say anything when we’ve been under duress.

We also have strong reactions to smells that are associated with trauma. I mentioned earlier also that the amygdala and the olfactory cortex are very close to each other. And when the amygdala is activated for emotional memories, that taps into that sense of smell. Studies show that there’s a 75% efficacy in identifying a smell when it’s associated with a witness trauma.

So what does this all mean?

Big takeaway here is that trauma elicits various reactions within the brain that affect the entire body. What is currently known is that exposure to trauma leads to a cascade of biological changes.

When we experience traumatic stress, it increases our chances for chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune conditions, increased risk for addictive behaviors, increased risk to encounter interpersonal violence, sadness, guilt, negative perceptions, pain, sensitivity and impaired relationships in low trust.

All of these are in part because of those biological processes that are associated with the stress response. We’ve experienced trauma that puts us at risk for various things. And we have to take steps to take care of ourselves accordingly.

So let’s talk about what we can do.

Just as our biological responses can perpetuate the stress response and affect our health over the long term. We can use physical activity to help us reset our systems and disrupt that pattern. Breathing exercises are really basic but a really effective intervention. Yoga is a nice combo of that exercise piece, along with meditation and mindfulness. Breathing exercises are one of the most fundamental ways we can reset our systems, where we can trigger that parasympathetic response over the sympathetic response.

Even just taking time to slow down and reset over an extended period of time, our body takes 24 to 48 hours to reset naturally in a stable and safe environment after a traumatic event. Most of us don’t live in a stable and safe environment that allows us to do that very easily. We have to go to work, we have to go and do a whole bunch of things. We may not always reset easily. So taking time, setting it aside and slowing down can help.

I’m going to end this lesson with a quote from Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, who is a premiere authority on trauma and trauma care. “The challenge of recovery is to reestablish ownership of your body and your mind, of yourself. This means feeling free to know what you know and to feel what you feel without becoming overwhelmed, enraged, ashamed or collapse.”

The more we know about how our body works and reacts to stress, the more we know about how to take care of ourselves as we continue to process our trauma.

In the next lesson we will focus on self regulation.

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