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What Does Trauma Do To The Brain

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Why Understanding What Trauma Does To The Brain Helps You Heal

How Does Trauma Effect the Brain?

February 14, 2020Rhonda Kelloway, LCSW, SEP

Trauma happens when you experience an event as physically or emotionally harmful or even life-threatening. Your bodys ability to cope is overwhelmed. Even though the event passes, trauma has lasting adverse effects on a persons mental, physical, social, emotional, and spiritual well-being. With nearly 61% of men and 51% of women experiencing trauma in their lifetime, its essential to understand what trauma does to the brain to be able to heal and minimize life-long adverse effects.

Trauma Makes The Amygdala Super

âThe amygdala is the part of the brain that controls emotions â in particular, fear and anger,â Dr. Hafeez says. âA person who has experienced intense psychological trauma is likely to have an amygdala that is hyperactive.â That means that even if there isnât any danger around, the amygdala might still activate a âfight or flightâ response, and cause the person to react as if theyâre under imminent threat.

Whenever you face danger, the fight or flight response kick-starts a host of reactions throughout your parasympathetic nervous system â your blood starts pumping, your muscles tense, and you become highly alert. The amygdala takes a leading role in this wave of responses, sending out hormones and signals throughout the body. Overactive amygdalas may start this process without warning, or when triggered by something that feels vaguely reminiscent of the original trauma, such as being in a similar setting. Some experts call this amygdala hijacking.

The result may be a panic attack, a flood of emotion, feelings of aggression, or constant stress. âPeople with overactive amygdalas are perpetually stressed and this can lead to debilitating anxiety,â Dr. Hafeez says. It can also physically change your brain structure. A 2020 study published in The Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation found that military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder were more likely to have enlarged amygdalas than veterans who didnât have trauma.

Offer All Children In Care Targeted And Trauma

Children in care are likely to have experienced a complex mix of neglect, trauma and adversity. There is an urgent need to develop tailored interventions for the difficulties faced by these children. In the meantime, all children in care should be offered interventions based on the best current evidence, and that target trauma symptoms and cognitive skills.

Targeted strategies include:

  • Trauma-Focused CBT
  • Dialectical Behaviour Therapy and
  • interventions that focus on the development of specific cognitive skills .

At present, Trauma-Focused CBT is the approach that has most empirical support . This trauma-specific intervention has also been shown to improve broad aspects of executive functioning such as cognitive skills and emotional regulation . Therefore, until more tailored interventions are developed for the complex needs of children in care, trauma-specific therapy should be offered as part of the support plan for children who have been exposed to traumatic events. Ideally, this input will occur in the context of a trauma- aware organisational framework .

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How Trauma Affects Our Brain

During a traumatic event, the following parts of our brain go offline or get highly reactive. But also, after repeated trauma they arent functioning properly.~ The thinking part of our brain is underactive. This leads to difficulty with problem solving, concentration, memory, organization, decision making, motivation, and emotional regulation.~ The part of our brain that processes experiences and information isnt working so its hard to distinguish between whats relevant and not, and its hard see whats going on in our life and to draw proper conclusions about it. It can also make it hard to remember the abuse.~ The part of our brain that helps us understand our experience is blunted. This includes experiencing pleasure and feeling alive.~ The brains alarm system goes off easily, sending the signals, Youre in danger, activating the sympathetic nervous system and causing the thinking brain to go offline.~ The processing system needed to resolve trauma stops so the trauma isnt processed and gets frozen in time.

~ The brains ability to use imagination is shut down, and if you cant imagine things, you cant change your life as easily.~ The speech center that you use to explain things goes offline and leaves you feeling dumbfounded.

Feeling overwhelmed, lost, anxious, depressed, hopeless, and disconnected are coming from the brain and body.

Trauma And The Brain: An Introduction For Professionals Working With Teens

KI Media: How Does Trauma Effect the Brain?

    Trauma can be defined as a deeply distressing response to a real or perceived threat to ones life. Trauma can result from events including, but not limited to, getting physically or sexually assaulted, sudden death of family members or close friends, being emotionally abused or neglected throughout ones childhood, the result of a catastrophic environmental event like an earthquake or hurricane, and can even result from generations of oppression on a family or community. Trauma is traditionally popularized as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder , a severe adaptation to threat characterized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as having re-experiencing symptoms , avoidance symptoms , and arousal symptoms . This definition however, can be limited and does not take into account the many nuances of subjective experience and behavioral expression. For example, a young child whos mother neglected him and in turn developed an insecure ambivalent attachment style may develop a worldview thats very cold and harsh relationally a young woman living in a community plagued by violence and drugs, but whos never been assaulted physically herself can still develop hyperarousal in response to constantly hearing gunshots. These are just a couple scenarios in which trauma can occur and fall outside the exact criteria of PTSD.

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    The Prefrontal Cortex Stops Working As It Should

    âTrauma can have a significant impact on the neurochemical system and lead to long-term changes in the way that an individualâs brain functions,â Kira Vredenburg LMSW, a therapist at addictiontreatment center Sierra Tucson, tells Bustle. She points to the prefrontal cortex, which helps regulate your emotions, that ordinarily controls the amygdalaâs reactions. In a traumatized brain, itâs less effective, which allows the amygdala to run riot. A 2015 study published in Neurobiology of Stressshowed that chronic stress and trauma weaken the prefrontal cortex and reduce its numbers of active firing neurons.

    âThis can lead to difficulty concentrating, zoning out or not feeling fully present, and feeling there is a block or disconnect between intellectually recognizing an emotion, or identifying the expected emotion in a certain situation, and actually being able to experience that emotion,â Vredenburg says.

    What Is Diffuse Axonal Injury

    Diffuse axonal injury is the shearing of the brain’s long connecting nerve fibers that happens when the brain is injured as it shifts and rotates inside the bony skull. DAI usually causes coma and injury to many different parts of the brain. The changes in the brain are often microscopic and may not be evident on computed tomography or magnetic resonance imaging scans.

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    Ensure That Specific Cognitive Difficulties Are Addressed Directly

    It seems likely that children in out-of-home care will experience some degree of cognitive difficulty and discrete trauma symptoms, depending on their unique experiences. Although safe and consistent caregiving will create the necessary conditions for recovery, it may not be sufficient to meet the needs of many children. Studies of children in care and related populations – including children with neurodevelopmental issues or acquired head injury , children affected by fetal alcohol spectrum disorders , and children with PTSD – all suggest that cognitive skills can be improved with specific and targeted interventions, delivered in the context of a safe and nurturing relationship. Caregivers also need to provide a structured and predictable environment in order to accommodate children with cognitive vulnerabilities.

    Finding The Mechanism In Mice


    Northwestern Medicine scientists, led by Dr. Radulovic, used mice in their study of repressed memories. The team gave the mice gaboxadol, a drug that stimulates receptors associated with hidden memories, to change their brain state.

    The mice were then put in a box and given a brief, mild shock. The next day, when the mice were returned to the same box, they moved freely and without fear indicating to the scientists that they did not recall the earlier shock. However, when the scientists gave the mice the drug again, returning them to the previous mental state, the mice froze in fear when in the box. The scientists concluded that only when the mice were returned to the brain state in which they experienced stress did they remember that experience.

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    How Is The Brain Really Affected By Trauma

    An object that penetrates brain tissue, such as a bullet or shattered piece of skull, also can cause traumatic brain injury. Mild traumatic brain injury may affect your brain cells temporarily. More-serious traumatic brain injury can result in bruising, torn tissues, bleeding and other physical damage to the brain.

    The Brain Is A Superhighway

    The brain is designed to work like an information superhighway. Information travels in and out of processing centers called synapses in a smooth, streamlined way. Those information carriers are specialized nerve cells called neurons. Neurons gather information from the environment and from the rest of the body, transfers it to the brain for processing, and then sends that information where it needs to go to make the body do what its supposed to do.

    The network of channels information moves through are called neural pathways. The synapses are the junction points between the neurons. They are the transfer stations, or control centers. Their job is to relay the information that comes to them to the next appropriate neuron for processing and transmission.

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    What Brain Areas Are Implicated In Ptsd

    PTSD symptoms develop due to dysfunction in two key regions:

    The Amygdala

    This is a small almond-shaped structure located deep in the middle of the temporal lobe. The amygdala is designed to:

    • Detect threats in the environment and activate the fight or flight response
    • Activate the sympathetic nervous system to help you deal with the threat
    • Help you store new emotional or threat-related memories

    The Prefrontal Cortex

    The Prefrontal Cortex is located in the frontal lobe just behind your forehead. The PFC is designed to:

    • Regulate attention and awareness
    • Determine the meaning and emotional significance of events
    • Regulate emotions
    • Inhibit or correct dysfunctional reactions

    When your brain detects a threat, the amygdala initiates a quick, automatic defensive response involving the release of adrenaline, norepinephrine, and glucose to rev up your brain and body. Should the threat continue, the amygdala communicates with the hypothalamus and pituitary gland to release cortisol. Meanwhile, the medial part of the prefrontal cortex consciously assesses the threat and either accentuates or calms down the fight or flight response.

    Studies of response to threat in people with PTSD show:

    • A hyper reactive amygdala
    • A less activated medial PFC

    In other words, the amygdala reacts too strongly to a potential threat while the medial PFC is impaired in its ability to regulate the threat response.

    The Brain Forms Early And Grows Quickly

    Infographics show the damage substance abuse can do to the ...

    The brain begins forming very quickly after conception and grows at an incredible pace. In fact, the brain begins forming within three weeks of conception! Its physical shape and structure that last throughout ones life are in place just seven weeks after conception. During the prenatal period, there are times that close to 250,000 neurons are added to the brain every single minute.

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    Emotional Trauma And The Amygdala

    The amygdala is a section of nervous tissue in the brain that is responsible for emotions, survival instincts, and memory.

    A major role of the amygdala is to detect fear. It recognizes and gathers information around us to determine threats. By using our senses, such as sight and sound, the amygdala will respond with the feeling of fear if it perceives a threat. This all happens unconsciously, deep in our brains.

    When affected by PTSD, the amygdala becomes hyperactive.

    Those who suffer from emotional trauma will often exhibit more fear of traumatic stressors than others. Often, stimuli can trigger overactivity in the amygdala if somehow connected to the traumatic event a person suffered from.

    This might lead to chronic stress, heightened fear, and increased irritation. This might also make it harder for those suffering to calm down or even sleep.

    Trauma Increased Opportunity For Miswiring

    Remember what I said about young kids having double the number of synapses of an adult? Well, when were talking about the effect of trauma on the brain, the more synapses and connections there are, the greater the chance for miswiring and misfiring. Especially if a child lived in a prolonged or intense traumatic environment, the trauma gets hardwired instead of the positive flows of information that we expect.

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    How To Cope With Trauma Triggers

    Identifying your triggers is the first step towards coping with them because you cannot avoid them all. Increased awareness of the source for your triggers also helps you recognize why you are reacting the way you are. This understanding can help you feel more in control because there are patterns and predictability to what you are experiencing.

    Here are some other healthy strategies to lessen their impact:

    • Mindfulness

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    Support Children And Caregivers To Understand The Link Between Traumatic Events And Cognitive Difficulties

    Trauma and the Brain

    Carers and children need an explanation for the difficulties they may be encountering. Providing an explanation for gaps or deficits in learning, organisation skills and memory can empower both children and caregivers if it leads to more realistic self-identity and a more optimistic outlook on the possibility of learning new skills. Linking pre-care experiences and poorly developed cognitive skills can help carers to persist in the face of challenging behaviour.

    Providing support for their caregivers is also an important way to support the child. Caregivers who are raising children with cognitive difficulties can experience significant strain that can impact on their emotional availability and the quality of care provided . This is significant, as synchronous, nurturing caregiving has also been shown to improve children’s cognitive functioning . For example, foster parents trained in Attachment & Bio-Behavioral Catch-Up, a program focused on responsive caregiving, were able to improve cognitive skills such as perspective-taking in children .

    Caregiver emotional regulation has been linked to children’s capacity for cognitive flexibility in children exposed to intimate partner violence . In the same study, positive parenting5 was linked to children’s capacity for organisation and planning, suggesting that children’s interaction with caregivers can be central to the development of cognitive skills following trauma.

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    What Are The Different Types Of Tbi

    Brain injury may happen in one of two ways:

    • Closed brain injury. Closed brain injuries happen when there is a nonpenetrating injury to the brain with no break in the skull. A closed brain injury is caused by a rapid forward or backward movement and shaking of the brain inside the bony skull that results in bruising and tearing of brain tissue and blood vessels. Closed brain injuries are usually caused by car accidents, falls, and increasingly, in sports. Shaking a baby can also result in this type of injury .

    • Penetrating brain injury. Penetrating, or open head injuries happen when there is a break in the skull, such as when a bullet pierces the brain.

    What Goes In Gets Hardwired

    Remember, what goes into a childs brain is what gets hardwired. When a child experiences trauma during their early years, it significantly changes the way the brain and its processes develop. Instead of brain development happening in a smooth and systematic way, everything becomes a jumbled, tangled mess. Some connections are there, others are missing, others end up in the wrong place, and developmental milestones are often missed along the way.

    Early childhood trauma especially things like abuse, neglect, abandonment, alcohol and drug exposure, removal from the home, or incarceration of a parent that happens during this critical development period has a significant and lifelong effect on how the childs brain develops and functions for the rest of their life.

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    Heightened Arousal Alterations In Consciousness And Intrusive Imagery

    Children can experience PTSD symptoms following discrete traumas, in which sensory information and emotions become disconnected. Later reminders of trauma can cause fragments of the memory or sensations associated with the trauma to be re-experienced out of context . Children may learn to avoid reminders of traumatic events in an attempt to avoid experiencing unpleasant emotions associated with the trauma.

    PTSD symptoms can be minimised by providing the opportunity for children to talk about unpleasant events, thoughts and feelings. In trauma therapy, children are encouraged to learn to recognise and tolerate the strong emotions associated with trauma, and this helps minimise avoidance and other symptoms over time. Children can find it reassuring to know that an adult can tolerate their strong emotions without becoming overwhelmed.

    Relaxation training and mindfulness strategies can also be helpful to calm heightened arousal and in learning to tolerate strong feelings associated with past events. Specific sleep hygiene strategies may also be needed due to heightened arousal interfering with sleep-wake cycles .

    Can The Brain Heal After Being Injured

    Trauma and the brain

    Most studies suggest that once brain cells are destroyed or damaged, for the most part, they do not regenerate. However, recovery after brain injury can take place, especially in younger people, as, in some cases, other areas of the brain make up for the injured tissue. In other cases, the brain learns to reroute information and function around the damaged areas. The exact amount of recovery is not predictable at the time of injury and may be unknown for months or even years. Each brain injury and rate of recovery is unique. Recovery from a severe brain injury often involves a prolonged or lifelong process of treatment and rehabilitation.

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