Trauma can impact you in a multitude of ways.
It can cause phobias, mood swings, anxiety, sleep disturbances, and difficulty concentrating. It may also distort your self-image, interrupt emotional functioning, and increase sensitivity to threat perception. The effects of trauma are profound. It can even severely impact your relationships and your resilience to life’s adversities.
At its worst, trauma might lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), completely throwing your life into chaos with recurring nightmares, flashbacks, distressing memories, and unprecedented emotional reactions to even the smallest perception of threat.
And it all begins in the brain.
Which Areas of the Brain Does Trauma Impact?
Trauma impacts mostly two specific areas of the brain: 1) the limbic system (the amygdala and the hippocampus) and 2) several parts of the prefrontal cortex (ventromedial, dorsolateral, and orbitofrontal areas).
The Limbic System
The limbic system plays a part in perceiving sensory information and controlling emotions, memory, and alertness.
The amygdala activates the sympathetic nervous system when it detects a threat. This automatic defense mechanism is called the fight-or-flight response. It initiates the release of adrenaline, glucose, norepinephrine, and the stress hormone cortisol to energize your body and brain. It also plays a part in storing emotional and threat-related memories and transferring short-term into long-term memory.
The hippocampus helps with deciding what should be stored as long-term memory. Scientists refer to this transference process as memory consolidation.
The Prefrontal Cortex Area
In general, the prefrontal cortex handles cognitive functions. This includes emotional regulation, attention and awareness, decision-making, and assessing threats.
The ventromedial prefrontal cortex, in particular, plays a role in personal decision-making, memory consolidation, suppressing negative emotions, and eventually dissolving of conditioned responses.
The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, for its part, houses working memory, which holds information before it gets transferred to long-term memory storage. It also plays a role in fine-tuning decision-making.
The orbitofrontal cortex is involved in sensory integration, communicating expected outcomes of a situation, and furnishing a link between emotions and decision-making.
How Does Trauma Affect These Areas of Your Brain?
As a reaction to trauma, some areas of the limbic system and prefrontal cortex area turn hyperactive (overactive) while others become hypoactive (underactive). For example, the amygdala overreacts and pours an excess of norepinephrine into your system. At the same time, because of this hyperarousal, your prefrontal cortex has difficulties regulating the overload.
Specific effects of trauma include:
Anger and Impulsiveness
When you suffer from trauma, you often become hypervigilant due to the reactiveness of your amygdala—always on edge and ready to jump at any perceived threat.
Since your prefrontal cortex is less active and doesn’t suppress emotions well, controlling over-reactive anger and impulsiveness is typically difficult when something triggers you. Lamentably, this inability to unwind and regulate emotional reactions can damage your relationships, and even endanger your career.
With your hippocampus’ functionality compromised, encoding and processing of memories also become impaired. This can impact the way you remember and recall memories, especially traumatic memories.
Distorted memory recollection, in turn, leads to gaps in remembering past events correctly, warped perceptions and expectations to new events, erroneously reacting to something that only vaguely reminds you of the event, and more. This can also have a tremendous effect on relationships, at home or work, and interfere with your concentration and motivation.
Fear and Negative Emotions
When you live through a traumatic event, you can commonly expect an excess of negative emotions and a lack of positive emotions. But it may also carry on long after the trauma has passed.
With an overactive amygdala and repressed prefrontal cortex functions, it’s no wonder you have trouble regulating your emotions and attach a more affirmative meaning to the incident. And when negative emotions continuously overpower positive ones, you likely become depressed and have a hard time enjoying day-to-day life.
Hypervigilance due to a continuous state of arousal or exposure to triggers that just so much as resembles the original traumatic situation—a loud noise, a scene in a movie, a person that resembles an aggressor—can impact more than your waking hours.
Feeling wound-up all the time can have a devastating impact on your sleep cycle. For example, you may have trouble going to sleep or staying asleep. More than that, unconscious recollection of the trauma can create flashbacks or invade your dreams, causing you nightmares.
If you’re interested in knowing more about the effects of trauma or if trauma therapy could be right for you, please feel free to contact me or visit my anxiety counseling page.