How Trauma Affects the Brain

Brain pic

Brain
Image: psychologytoday.com

Dr. Christie Mensch serves as a psychiatrist at the Wynadot Center in Kansas City, Kansas. In this role, Dr. Christie Mensch has evaluated and treated many survivors of trauma.

When a person survives an extremely traumatic event, whether a one-time occurrence or a sustained threat to safety, that experience changes the way the person’s brain responds to the world. This occurs in the context of the triune brain model, which distinguishes the survival-focused hindbrain from the emotional and sensory midbrain and the logical forebrain.

Trauma causes the hindbrain to assume control and work to keep the victim alive. The higher order functions of the brain essentially turn off as stress hormones prepare the body for the fight, flight, or freeze response.

The brain is designed to do this in response to threats of danger, but a severe trauma can prevent the intended response of ending survival mode and returning the forebrain to its normal status of rational control. Without this control, the instinctual and emotional responses of the lower-level brain take over.

The amygdala, responsible for identifying threats and connecting memory with emotion, becomes overactive and causes the person to perceive a threat in benign situations. At the same time, an increase in stress hormones prevents the brain from deescalating these threat perceptions.

These processes combine with trauma-induced increased blood flow to the right forebrain and decreased flow to the left forebrain. The person experiences a higher concentration of negative emotions and a reduced capacity to process or voice memories.

The result is often a distressing combination of symptoms that include intrusive thoughts, persistent fear, and negative mood and self-perception. It is possible for these changes to reverse, though it does require professional support and hard work on the part of the individual. Different treatments work for different people, though all involve rewiring and reprogramming affected neural processes.

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