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Understanding the Trauma Brain

Neuroplasticity provides hope if you suffer from trauma or PTSD.

Key points

  • Trauma can affect your brain's emotion networks to make you overreact or under-react to stressful situations.
  • Trauma creates fixed neural networks that are isolated from other parts of your brain and resistant to change.
  • Avoidance behaviors and trying to suppress your trauma don't work and can create more damage.
  • Seeking psychotherapy, meditating, doing yoga, and taking medication can all help make your brain more flexible.
Source: GDJ/Pixabay

If you suffer from post-traumatic stress, you will likely overuse some parts of your brain and underuse others. The parts of your brain involved in monitoring for signs of danger and anticipating what could go wrong are overused. Because experiencing severe trauma can shut down other systems not involved in emergency responding, it is also likely that parts of your brain that are involved in enjoying the moment, celebrating your own successes, pursuing positive goals, relaxing, feeling gratitude or awe, or bonding securely with other people are underutilized.

Traumas Keep Your Brain Stuck in the Past

If you have PTSD, when you feel "triggered by an emotionally upsetting or physically taxing situation, you rapidly enter a state of "fight, flight, freeze" and may react with rage, run away or shut down. This is the result of ancient brain and nervous system wiring related to survival.

As a result of trauma, certain groups of neurons (those related to survival functions) may, over time, connect more strongly with each other while becoming more isolated from the rest of the brain. This can lead to a kind of rigidity in which the triggering of one part of a neural network makes it more likely that the whole set of neurons will be activated. These networks can become stuck in a pattern and resist taking in new information.

In the case of trauma, for example, your sense of a lack of safety or lack of self-worth may continue even when your current environment is not dangerous, and you are valued at your job or by your family and friends. It's as if the new information is not getting to the parts of your brain that store your trauma memory. When you suffer from post-traumatic stress, you are more likely to view current events through the lens of trauma, leading you to perceive things inaccurately and overreact or under-react. You can get stuck in fixed ways of thinking and feeling that are more reflective of the past than your present.

Traumas Make Your Strengths and Coping Tools Harder to Access

Weaker connections between neurons in a brain network may make it harder for your brain to perform certain functions, such as concentrating on a task without interruption or inhibiting unhelpful thought patterns or destructive impulses. Unprocessed trauma memories are thought to be stored in your brain in a way that is disconnected from the overall context. When triggered, they don't connect fully to the fact that your present is different from your past and that you have different abilities and choices now than you did then.

When you are triggered into a trauma state, you may not be able to connect with or utilize the strengths and resiliencies you can exercise in other contexts. The parts of your brain that help you assert yourself, calm down negative thinking, regulate emotions, make mindful choices, or realistically evaluate risk and reward may not have a strong enough connection to the "raw" trauma memory to be able to calm things down and redirect.

Neuroplasticity Means Your Brain Can Learn New, More Helpful Patterns

Traumas in childhood can affect the brain into adulthood. Yet your brain neurons have plasticity, which means they can continue to be changed by new experiences, even into adulthood and old age. You can learn to rewire your brain by making small changes repeated over and over again. You can practice new ways of thinking, new ways of making room for your feelings, and new ways of behaving that are more proactive and less avoidant.

At first, the new habits seem weak in comparison to your wired-in responses. You may be tempted to think they don't work and stop using them. But if you persevere, the neurons underlying these new habits will begin to get stronger. Perhaps you will be able to cope better with mild and moderate stress without being triggered. If you keep going for many months or years, even the severe triggering will begin to calm down as new network connections are built and strengthened.

Avoidance Perpetuates Trauma-Based Patterns; Facing Fears Helps You Unlearn Them

You may try to put your trauma memories and feelings into a mental box so you can avoid looking at them. You try to get on with everyday life as if the trauma never happened and don't deal with it. You may drink alcohol or abuse other substances to suppress anxiety or escape difficult feelings. You may become sexually compulsive or sexually avoidant. You may overwork, overeat for emotional reasons. become obsessed with thinness or exercise compulsively.

Although these strategies can work to suppress feelings for a while, they create new problems and can damage your health and self-esteem. They also don't work to suppress trauma permanently. Eventually, the trauma feelings break through. Sometimes a new stressor like being rejected in a relationship or being laid off from work can trigger them. A physical illness can make you feel weaker and more vulnerable like you did at the time of the trauma. You may overwork so as not to deal with the trauma but eventually face burnout. Life changes like having a child, a relationship breakup, being laid off from a job, or the death of a parent may trigger old trauma-related feelings. Loneliness may bring out the old feelings of being unworthy and unwanted.

If avoidance doesn't work, what is the alternative? Seeking therapy for your trauma is the best option. A trained professional can help you face your traumas in a controlled way and with support. Some therapies that are recommended for trauma include somatic therapy, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), cognitive-behavioral therapy, or internal family systems therapy. Doing regular yoga, meditating, having a healthy exercise practice, or taking medication like antidepressants can enhance the effects of therapy.

The most important goal is to develop a mindset of approach, rather than avoidance. You need to learn to approach difficult feelings and situations like conflict or intimacy in a mindful way and at your own pace. Trauma gives you an "all or nothing" mindset. A gradual, strategic approach is the antidote.

As you learn the habits of approach rather than avoidance, you will learn that you can function in the face of anxiety. You will learn that the trauma memory and related sensations are not the same as the actual event and can be tolerated. Eventually, you will begin to see yourself as a stronger and more capable person. Although you can't completely eliminate the trauma memory from your brain, you can connect it more strongly to your networks of resilience so that you, and not your trauma, are in charge of your life.

New knowledge about trauma and the brain is emerging and will continue to lead to new treatments. Psychotherapy assisted by psychedelics like MDMA is one such approach that shows initial promise. Understanding how trauma works in the brain and body is the first step to beginning a process of healing that can lead to lasting change. But don't try to do it all on your own. Seek the help of a caring and knowledgeable mental health professional who is trauma-informed.

To find a professional near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Viking.

Siegel, D. J. (2010). Mindsight: the new science of personal transformation. New York: Bantam Books.

Shapiro, F (2010). Getting Past Your Past : Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy. Rodale.

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