Here’s Your Brain on Trauma
by Dr. Jennifer Sweeton
Approximately 50% of the population will experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives. While reactions to trauma can vary widely, and not everyone will develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), trauma can change the brain in some predictable ways that can be useful to be aware of if you are struggling to cope after trauma.
With an increased awareness of what is going on in your brain, you can seek treatment to address your symptoms and learn skills that will actually rewire your brain for recovery! Additionally, knowing what’s going on can be immensely helpful because you may realize that you’re not crazy, irreversibly damaged, or a bad person. Instead, think of a traumatized brain as one that functions differently as a result of traumatic events. Just as your brain changed in response to your past experiences with the world, it can change in response to your future experiences as well. In other words, the brain is “plastic,” and you can change it!
Three brain areas to know:
Trauma can alter brain functioning in many ways, but three of the most important changes seem to occur in the following areas:
- The prefrontal cortex (PFC), called the “Thinking Center”
- The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), called the “Emotion Regulation Center,” and
- The amygdala, called the “Fear Center”
A visual depiction of these three areas appears below.
As you can see, the Thinking Center (PFC) of the brain is located near the top of your head, behind your forehead. The Thinking Center is responsible for many abilities that we possess, including rational thought, problem-solving, personality, planning, empathy, and awareness of ourselves and others. When this area of the brain is strong we are able to think clearly, make good decisions, and be aware of ourselves and others.
The second region, the Emotion Regulation Center, is located next to the Thinking Center, but is deeper inside your brain. This area is responsible (in part) for regulating emotion, and (ideally) has a close working relationship with the Thinking Brain. When this region of the brain is strong, we are able to manage difficult thoughts and emotions without being totally overwhelmed by them. While we might want to send that snarky email back to a coworker, the Emotion Regulation Center reminds us that this is not a good idea, and helps us manage our emotions so that we don’t do things we regret!
The last area listed is the amygdala, which is a tiny brain structure deep inside our brain. This subcortical area, which is outside of conscious awareness or control, serves as the Fear Center of the brain. Specifically, its primary job is to receive all information – everything you see, hear, touch, smell, and taste – and answer one question: “Is this a threat?” The main purpose of the Fear Center is to detect danger and threat and, if present, produce fear in us. When this area is activated, we feel afraid, reactive, and vigilant.
So what’s going on in a traumatized brain?
Traumatized brains look different from non-traumatized brains in three predictable ways:
- The Thinking Center of the brain is underactivated,
- The Emotion Regulation Center of the brain is underactivated, and
- The Fear Center of the brain is overactivated.
Here’s what it looks like:
What this shows is that oftentimes, a traumatized brain is bottom-heavy, meaning that activation of lower, more primitive areas of the brain (called subcortical areas) are HIGH, including the Fear Center, while the higher areas of the brain (called cortical areas) are underactivated.
In English, what this means is that if you are traumatized, you may experience chronic stress, vigilance, fear, and irritation. You may also have a hard time feeling safe, calming down, and sleeping. These symptoms are the result of a hyperactive Fear Center.
At the same time, individuals who are traumatized may notice difficulties with concentration and attention, and often report they can’t think clearly. This, not surprisingly, is due to the Thinking Center being underactivated.
Finally, survivors of trauma will sometimes complain that they feel incapable of managing their emotions. For example, if someone spooks them, they may experience a rapid heart rate long after the joke is up, or may have a hard time “just letting go” of minor annoyances. Even when they want to calm down and feel better, they just can’t. This is in large part due to a weak Emotion Regulation Center.
What can you start doing now?
Changing the brain takes effort, repetition, and time. The best gift you can give yourself, if you’re serious about rewiring your brain for health, is psychotherapy. If you’re ready to start that journey, look for a psychologist who specializes in trauma and PTSD, and who uses evidence-based methods that change the brain by working with both the body and the mind.
Also, consider adding a body-based or mindfulness-based technique to your daily routine, in order to begin de-activating the Fear Center. This is a fantastic first step to healing, as when we are able to quiet the Fear Center, we are better able to work on strengthening and activating the Thinking Center and Emotion Regulation Center. Two Fear Center de-activating exercises include diaphragmatic breathing and autogenic training. The recommendation is to practice these techniques, or similar ones, for short periods of time multiple times per day. Remember, practice makes progress!