Trauma is all too common these days, and it can damage your brain.
When you think of trauma, you might picture some major life experience, like war, abuse, or crime. Unfortunately, common life experiences, such as divorce, the death of a loved one or pet, a family member’s substance abuse, mental or physical illness, or incarceration, bullying, natural disasters, a car crash, witnessing violence, poverty, etc.
Almost anything can be traumatic. Trauma is whatever is traumatic to that person’s brain. Any experience that makes an individual feel unsafe, physically or emotionally, and that overwhelms and disrupts their brain’s ability to cope or function qualifies as trauma.
The bad news is trauma can actually alter the operation of your brain during a stressful event and result in lasting changes in specific brain regions. The good news is the brain can reverse the changes and heal.
What Is PTSD Exactly?
PTSD stands for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s a mental health condition that can develop in people who have experienced or witnessed trauma. PTSD can result in changes in the brain that exhibit as a range of symptoms including:
- Intrusive Memories: Persistent flashbacks, nightmares, or distressing memories related to the trauma can disrupt a person’s life.
- Avoidance: Avoiding reminders of the trauma, including places, people, or activities that could trigger memories is a common behavior of people with the disorder.
- Negative Changes in Thinking and Mood: Persistent negative thoughts about oneself or others, feelings of detachment or estrangement from others, and a diminished interest in normal activities can be symptoms.
- Changes in Emotional Reactivity: People can experience heightened irritability, anger, or other emotions or, at the other extreme, shut down and become emotionally numb.
- Hyperarousal: Persistent heightened nervous system arousal, including difficulty sleeping, irritability, trouble concentrating, and an exaggerated startle response, are symptoms of the condition.
In the case of PTSD, symptoms and behaviors are persistent and significant enough to interfere with a person’s ability to function in their daily life. A mental health professional typically makes a diagnosis based on behaviors. A blood test can also help diagnose the condition by detecting genetic and cellular changes that accompany the disorder.
Here’s How PTSD Changes Your Brain
PTSD can have observable physical effects on the brain, which research shows cause structural and functional changes. The brain is a highly malleable organ, and exposure to trauma can lead to alterations in many areas, resulting in the symptoms. Some ways PTSD impacts the brain are:
The hippocampus, a region crucial for memory and learning, can be affected by trauma. Studies indicate that individuals with PTSD often have a smaller hippocampus which is associated with difficulties contextualizing and integrating memories. This can contribute to symptoms like flashbacks, intrusive memories, and not being able to distinguish between past and present experiences.
Research shows the amygdala, a part of the brain associated with the processing of emotions and fear responses, tends to become hyperactive in individuals with PTSD. This heightened sensitivity leads to hypervigilance and an exaggerated amygdala response to emotional stimuli
The prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision-making, emotional regulation, and executive functions, is central to fear processing and may undergo changes in individuals with the condition. PTSD can be viewed as a disorder of fear dysregulation, which could result in difficulties with impulse control, emotional regulation, and other cognitive functions.