How Trauma Affects Our Brains and our Bodies

Trauma, at its essence, is something intolerable and unbearable. While people can react to traumatic events differently, trauma can create a physical change, rewiring the brain’s alarm systems and increasing the release of stress hormones. In Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s New York time’s Bestselling book The Body Keeps the Score, he dissects the science behind trauma. Dr. van der Kolk is one of the world’s top experts on trauma, having spent over three decades working with survivors. His work reveals how trauma literally reshapes the brain, the mind, and the body.

Understanding how trauma affects the brain is something many researchers are working to uncover. Previous research studies with Rorschach tests revealed that traumatized people tend to superimpose their trauma on everything. Other research on brain scans showed that when a flashback was triggered for traumatized patients, the area of the brain responsible for speaking (the Broca's area) was inactive. This literally meant there was a physical inability to put their feelings into words.

The amygdala is an important brain structure that is usually affected by trauma. The amygdala is like a smoke alarm; it takes incoming information and identifies its relevance in terms of survival. The amygdala sends an instant message to other structures to orchestrate a whole-body response. The frontal lobe (in charge of decision making) may be able to restore balance by letting you know you are responding to a false alarm. However, people with trauma may lack this ability and misinterpret many things as a direct threat to their survival. When triggered, the amygdala will activate the release of chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline which causes a constant feeling of agitation and arousal. During trauma, when individuals are unable to escape danger, their brain will continue secreting stress chemicals in vain.

Psychologist Stephen Porges introduced the Polyvagal theory. The theory focuses on the body’s vagus nerve and its influence on trauma. The vagus nerve connects the brain with other important organs like the lungs, heart, and stomach. Focusing on this nerve and the body’s regulation of arousal, the Polyvagal theory suggests there are three fundamental states for our bodies.

The first is social engagement which means, when humans are in the face of danger, we will first reach out for help and support. When social engagement does not work, we enter the second state of fight or flight. This state causes a change in our ventral vagal complex (VCC) which is in charge of social engagement and remaining calm. When we are unable to fight or flee, we are left with the third physiological state: freeze/collapse. This third state activates the dorsal vagal complex (DVC) which reaches down into the stomach and kidneys and causes the heart rate and metabolism to drop. The DVC’s activation is the ultimate emergency system as people will disengage, collapse, and freeze in the face of danger and their inability to escape from it.

The way in which we are able to interact with our trauma may change the behaviors we display after the event or influence our reaction to future traumas. If you were able to fight or flee, you might become overall more anxious and on edge. If you were trapped and unable to act during the traumatic event, you may dissociate and shut down to numb yourself and prevent your body from registering any emotional or physical pain.

Trauma breaks down important functions in our brain that change our entire way of living. Brain studies reveal that for some traumatized patients, there is no distinction between the past or the present. Traumatized patients have an inactivation of their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, creating a lost sense of time. Additionally, Dr. van der Kolk began to realize that many of his patients could not physically feel whole areas of their bodies. Trauma created a disconnection between their mind and their body.

Not only were their sensory perceptions altered, but research also shows how trauma affects people’s sense of self and self-awareness. Some patients weren’t able recognize who they were in a mirror. A study focused on the ‘default state network’ (when people actively think of nothing), found that individuals will activate areas of the brain related to the self even in the default state network. However, the same was not true for traumatized patients.

One other study evaluated how brains react to eye contact from another individual. In individuals who did not experience trauma, when making eye contact, they activate their frontal lobe and mirror neurons which allow for rational thinking and understanding others’ intentions. However, in traumatized individuals, they did not have any activation of the frontal lobe and instead had an activation in a region of the brain in charge of self-protective behaviors. Trauma disconnects the brain from activating regions needed for healthy social engagement as well as self-sensing areas.

Trauma is very difficult to understand, however it should be emphasized that having strong social support and true reciprocity in your relationships is a very powerful tool in protecting against stress and trauma. Trauma affects us at our core and leaves a mark on our brains and our bodies. According to Dr. van der Kolk, “for real change to take place, the body needs to learn the danger has passed and to live in the reality of the present.”

Interested in learning more about treatments for trauma?
Schedule an appointment today with The Purpose Center! Email or call 919-493-1975.

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