When a person experiences a trauma, the brain reacts in several different ways which can affect the life of that person moving forward. Just as a physical injury from a traumatic accident can affect your body at the site of the injury for years to come, your mind can be also be impacted for years after a traumatic incident, whether due to a physical or psychological trauma.
Trauma causes an overwhelming feeling of helplessness and fear of potential death, serious injury, serious loss (death of someone else), pain, or entrapment. These overwhelming feelings and fear cause the brain to react in ways to try and protect itself. Traumatic experiences can overwhelm the brain’s ability to cope using normal methods of stress relief, and thus alternative coping methods have to be developed, which can cause disruption in the lives of people trying to recover from trauma.
In order to understand why people may have certain reactions to traumatic events, it is important to understand what trauma really is and the range of ways that the brain reacts to the trauma.
Defining Traumatic Experiences
Trauma can occur in response to major onetime events such as natural disasters, a car accident, witnessing or being a victim of violence or a crime such as sexual or physical assault. It may also occur in response to chronic or repetitive experiences such as child abuse or neglect, military combat, neighborhood violence and crime, wartime atrocities, physically or emotionally abusive relationships, and long-term deprivation.
The most important thing to understand about trauma is that it is based on a person’s subjective experience. Two people could experience a similar incident but react in very different ways. The objective facts of the experience do not always cause the same reaction in everybody, so it’s important to understand that it is the individual that defines whether the experience was traumatic or not.
Whether a person perceives an incident as being traumatic or not often has to do with how much danger they were in during the event, whether loss of life occurred or could have occurred, whether it was a one-time incident or an ongoing experience, whether they have access to reasonable safety measures, how much support they have from friends and family, and whether they are validated or shamed for their experiences.
What are the Symptoms of Trauma
When a person has experienced a trauma, such as a sexual assault, a home invasion, or a significant loss, they may experience a wide range of symptoms in reaction to the trauma. Remember that these are NORMAL reactions to ABNORMAL situations. These symptoms may include:
- Emotional distress
- Distressful and intrusive memories
- Constant feeling of being in danger
- Sleep disturbances
- Emotional numbing or disconnection from others
- Inability to trust others
- Hyper-arousal (constant worry or checking behaviors)
- Physical reactions (headaches, muscle aches)
- Uncontrollable fear
- Confusion about timing or order of events
- Feelings of guilt, shame, or self-blame
- Difficulty concentrating
These are all indications that the brain is attempting to either prevent further trauma from happening again by keeping you in a constant state or arousal or protecting you from potential emotional distress by suppressing upsetting or painful emotions. It is also normal to experience an increase in these symptoms in reaction to another stressors that arises or surrounding a stressful time such as an anniversary or other significant date related to the trauma.
The Effects of Trauma on the Brain
When you have experienced trauma, your brain goes into a state of hyper-arousal, basically because your fight or flight response has been triggered and your brain reacts by trying to prepare you for potential danger. That potential for danger reverberates through your entire body, including your limbic system and your autonomic nervous system.
Your limbic system includes the hypothalamus, the hippocampus, and the amygdala, as well as other areas of the brain, and has to do with processing emotions and forming memories. The hypothalamus is responsible for regulating many bodily functions, including your arousal to emotional circumstances and the functioning of your autonomic nervous system (blood pressure, breathing rate, sweating, heart-rate). The hippocampus helps you convert what is happening in the present moment into long-term memories. The amygdala helps to control reactions to stimuli, such as aggression and fear.
When trauma triggers a stress reaction in your limbic system, it can feel overwhelming because your brain is not used to dealing with such a high level of stress, and so its functions can be negatively affected. This reaction in the brain accounts for why some trauma survivors have difficulty recalling the correct order of timing or certain details of the event.
It’s not because they are lying or exaggerating, which some trauma survivors are accused of when their memory is impaired due to a trauma. It is because the part of their limbic system responsible for creating and storing memories was flooded by stress and the entire system was reacting in ways to focus solely on surviving the traumatic situation. Unfortunately, this memory impairment in reaction to trauma is often used against survivors to try and minimize what happened to them or cause doubt in their account of the events.
The truth is that when traumatic events happen, your memory can get mixed up and certain events may not be organized correctly in your brain’s memory filing system, so to speak. This doesn’t mean that a survivor’s perception of events is invalid, it just means that their memory may have been damaged during the traumatic event, which can cause further confusion, shame, or embarrassment about the traumatic event.
Your autonomic nervous system includes the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, and it is responsible for alternately preparing you to handle a dangerous situation, and then calming you back down when the danger is over.
During a stressful event, the nervous system releases the stress hormone cortisol to give you a boost of energy to react to the dangerous situation. Normally, when a stressful even passes, the nervous system will then regulate your hormonal output and bring your back to your normal homeostasis. However, when a major trauma overwhelms your system in reaction to the perceived danger you are in that flood of stress hormones might remained heightened, leaving you feeling stuck in a constant state of hyper-arousal.
This state of hyper-arousal gets exacerbated when you are being constantly flooded with stressors, such as being stuck in an abusive relationship (where you feel you’re always walking on eggshells), or if you experience multiple triggers back to back (such as losing several loved ones in a short period of time). This relentless stress to your system causes your brain to react in a way that can feel like you are constantly on the look-out for the next potential danger or loss, and can make it hard to get back to a period of relative emotional stability.
When to Seek Treatment for Trauma
Trauma recovery can take time, and there is no hard and fast time-line for how long it takes for each individual. However, if you have been experiencing the symptoms described above for more than 3 months after the initial trauma, you may need to seek out professional help. Remember that it is normal to have these emotional reactions to trauma, but talking with someone in a safe environment can help you to process your fears and the emotional damage that you have endured.
If you have people who you know are supportive and understanding, it can be helpful to talk to those who care about you and explain what you are going through. It can be hard to reach out for help, but it is so helpful when you feel supported by those who truly care about you. Talking about trauma can be hard, so turning to a professional therapist or a support group for people who have been through similar traumas can be incredibly healing and help you get to the next level in your recovery.
If you are experiencing any of the following after a trauma, please consider seeking out a professional with experience in trauma recovery:
- Severe fear, anxiety, or depression
- Trouble with functioning at home or work
- Disturbing nightmares or flashbacks
- Avoiding more and more things to prevent distress
- Unable to talk about the trauma with caring friends or family
- Feeling overwhelmed or frozen in life and unable to move forward
- Abusing substances to feel relief from emotional distress
Trauma recovery involves processing memories related to the trauma and the feelings that were triggered during and after the event. An informed trauma therapist can help you to face feelings and memories that have caused you distress and discharge some of the emotional energy or anger you may feel related to the traumatic event. You may also learn new ways to cope with overwhelming feelings and learn how to re-build your ability to assess safety and build trusting relationships.
Trauma disrupts your body and your brain’s ability to feel safe and at ease. Your nervous system may feel like it is stuck in overdrive and you can’t calm down or feel balanced. In order to dispel that excess energy and feel safe again, you may have to go through some uncomfortable things, like talking about painful memories. Don’t push yourself to do things you’re not ready for, but recognize that healing takes time and you don’t have to go through it alone.
For more on trauma recovery, see this post on 5 Things Needed for Trauma Recovery.