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  • Writer's pictureShruti GOCHHWAL

How Exposure To Trauma Can Affect Brain Function

Trauma is any form of physical insult. Learn how trauma can affect the brain function.

What is Trauma?

The American Psychological Association defines trauma as, “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster”. A traumatic event can be a shocking, dangerous, and scary event that affects a person emotionally. A single traumatic event can alter the emotional wellbeing of an individual and can affect the brain.

What Can Cause Trauma?

Causes of Trauma

Physical neglect, Credits: pixabay

The following events during childhood can cause trauma.

  1. Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse

  2. Physical and emotional neglect

  3. Witnessing domestic violence

  4. Substance misuse within the household

  5. Mental illness within the household

  6. Parental separation or divorce

  7. Incarceration of a household member.

How Does Brain Development Happens?

Most of the brain developments happen inutero

Brain Development, Credits: pixabay

Before understanding how trauma affects the brain, it is important to know the normal brain development.

The majority of brain development happens inutero, but in the first few years of life, the white matter and grey matter structures continue to develop and increase the size of the brain.

Grey Matter: Affects muscle control, sensory perception, speech, decision making, and self-control.

White matter: Affects learning, brain functions, and communicating with different regions of the brain.

Trauma affects different structures of the brain, depending on which developmental stage the brain is in. So a traumatic event may not have a uniform impact on everyone’s life.

How Does Trauma Affect the Brain?

Trauma affects the Brain Structure

Brain Structure, Credits: pixabay

Any traumatic event can cause stress-induced changes in the structure and function of the brain. The four main areas of the brain that are affected due to trauma include the hippocampus, the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex, and the brain stem.  There are also changes in the memory function due to alterations in the hippocampus and amygdala.

During a threatening situation, the brain signals the body to release stress hormones called cortisol and adrenalin. Cortisol is said to damage the cells of the hippocampus that is responsible for integrating the memory. People who have experienced childhood abuse tend to have a smaller hippocampus. The smaller hippocampus leads to difficulties with memory and learning. Also during a trauma, the amygdala becomes hyperactive.

During an acute trauma, the brain stem reacts to the threat by activating the fight, flight, freeze, and collapse responses. People with trauma can react differently, they may become angry, want to defend them, or have an urge to run or flee. Sometimes they may feel frozen, having a highly stressful environment in their body and the brain.

The effect of trauma can lead to mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Traumatic issues are also linked to heart disease and chronic inflammation.

Trauma leads to long term effects

Brain processing information, Credits: pixabay

The long term effects of trauma include

  1. Attachment: People with any history of a traumatic event may have difficulty in managing the relationships and tend to feel isolated from society.

  2. Emotional Regulation: People undergoing trauma may feel difficulty in communication and express their feelings

  3. Cognitive Ability: People may face difficulties with learning and language development.

  4. Self-Concept: People with traumatic experiences may have low self-esteem

  5. Behavioral Control: Sleeping and eating behaviors may vary, and they may be more aggressive, finding difficulty in controlling their impulses.

Treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

It takes a significant amount of time for the brain to heal from a traumatic event. Each individual may respond differently to the treatment. The following approaches are used as treatment modalities for PTSD.

  1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

  2. Medications

  3. Biofeedback Therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

This part of the treatment aims to turn the negative associations of a person into a positive one.



Medicines for trauma, Credits: pixabay

Serotonin reuptake inhibitors are used to treat PTSD. These medicines affect the activity of a neurotransmitter called serotonin. Sertraline (Zoloft) and paroxetine (Paxil) are the approved FDA drugs used to treat PTSD. Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI) like venlafaxine can also be used to treat PTSD.

Biofeedback Therapy

During biofeedback therapy, muscle tension, blood volume pulse, heart rate, skin conductance, hand temperature, respiration, and brainwave activity are measured by computers and electric sensors to determine how one’s body and mind are affected by stress. Accordingly, treatment options will be initiated.

Take-Home Message

Trauma affects the functions of the brain and leads to long term effects.

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