How Trauma Changes the Brain
Authored by Audra Franchini
If you have experienced trauma, daily living can be fraught with anxiety and uncertainty. Whether the traumatic event is new or decades old, trauma can cause cascading problems, such as addiction to drugs or alcohol, and prevent you from experiencing joy in your life. Often, common activities such as going to work or school or simply interacting with other people, including those close to you, such as spouses, children, parents, and friends, can be overwhelming.
Why is this? Just as addiction changes the functioning of the brain so that normal pleasurable activities such as food, music, and sex are no longer appealing because drugs and alcohol are all that the brain “desires,” trauma, also, has a severe impact on the brain.
A traumatized brain actually functions differently than a normal brain. Physiological changes can occur all over the body as the result of emotional trauma, but the brain is impacted primarily in three areas:
- The prefrontal cortex, called the “Thinking Center,” located behind our forehead, is responsible for rational thought, problem-solving, personality, planning, and, making decisions.
- The anterior cingulate cortex, called the “Emotion Regulation Center” is deeper inside our brain but located next to the prefrontal cortex. This area is responsible for regulating our emotions and working with the “Thinking Center” to manage our emotions, and
- The amygdala, located deep inside our brain and outside of our awareness or control, operates as the “Fear Center” of the brain. The amygdala has one job—to assess our environment using all our senses and answer the question “Am I being threatened?” When this area of the brain is “on,” we feel fear, hyper-awareness, and are extremely reactive.
In a normal brain, our Thinking Center and our Emotion Regulation Center work together so that we have the capacity to analyze information, experience emotions in our life, and make decisions without feeling acute stress.
In a traumatized brain, the Thinking Center and the Emotion Center are under-activated and the Fear Center is overactive. This can cause chronic stress, irritation, difficulty sleeping and other symptoms. At the same time, traumatized patients report having difficulty concentrating or thinking clearly, as the Thinking Center is not functioning fully. Similarly, trauma survivors have an hypo-active Emotion Center which can result in feelings of panic, an inability to calm down, or the opposite, a general feeling of malaise or depression when confronted with ordinary occurrences in their lives. This emotional roller coaster can be accompanied by physical symptoms such as increased heartbeat.
Overcoming trauma, especially when you have an addiction to drugs and alcohol requires time and treatment. Specific care with specific components is required to break free of trauma and begin a life in recovery from both trauma and a substance use disorder. Individual and group therapy with trauma informed specialists, meditation, mindfulness, special trauma-informed yoga for body awareness and breathing, and other evidence-based treatments, in conjunction with substance use disorder treatment, will help you retrain your brain and quiet your “Fear Center.” It’s a lot of work but the good news is that you don’t have to continue feeling bad. When your brain is “rewired” with positive coping mechanisms that help you identify triggers, manage emotions, and calm your fears, your life without trauma and addiction can begin.