How Trauma Affects the Brain

Trauma affects the brain, especially the prefrontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus. Ongoing trauma is associated with “lasting change in these brain areas” (Bremmer, 2006).

When there is a potential threat the amygdala sends an instant message to the hippocampus, activating the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is the unconscious system that regulates bodily functions such as digestion, respiration and heart rate. If we need to run fast, this system will get us ready quickly.

The amygdala processes the information faster than the prefrontal cortex, so our body may have responded before we have been able to think logically about it.

The amygdala also releases cortisol and adrenaline, hormones that prepare us for fight or flight. Once the threat is gone the body returns to normal. However, if there is a problem with this system there will still be arousal and the person will feel their heart rate elevation, increased breathing, and general unrest, as a result of the activation of the fight or flight system.

In PTSD it is very difficult to activate the prefrontal cortex to help calm the whole system down with logical and soothing thoughts and feelings.

Any healing of trauma will need to include engaging the prefrontal cortex and the whole body. Research has shown yoga, meditation, music, art, dance, EMDR, narrative work and others can have had a big impact when working with trauma.

My personal experience has shown me the power of working with the inner child (transactional analysis) and Focusing (a body centred approach to therapy).

References

Van der Kolk (2014). The Body Keeps the Score.  London, UK: Random House. (p.60-63).

Bremner J. D. (2006). Traumatic stress: effects on the brain. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience8(4), 445–461.