Trauma has many moving parts and while I’ll be providing lots of information, we will only be scratching the surface. This is why I will be splitting it up into at least 3 different posts.
When I reference trauma, I’m meaning emotion/psychological trauma.
To provide a comprehensive experience, I’m starting with the boring to many, but important, relevant, structures of the brain. I’m going to insert puppy pics to keep you awake. I wish my professors did the same for me.
There are basically 3 parts of the brain that play major factors in how we process and handle a traumatic event. They are the Hippocampus, the Amygdala, and the Prefrontal Cortex.
Hippocampus: part of the limbic system that processes emotions and memory, especially past knowledge and experiences.
Amygdala: responsible for the perception of emotions like anger, fear, sadness, and control of aggression. Stores memories and events so we are able to recall similar ones in the future.
Prefrontal Cortex: located in the anterior part of the frontal lobe that is especially developed in humans and regulates complex cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functioning. Usually developing around 24-25 years old.
Puppy: Very cute. Probably likes peanut butter.
Now that you know what these parts of the brain do, you can learn how trauma effects them.
The most direct impact of trauma is seen in the hippocampus. It helps us distinguish between past and present memories, encode new ones, retrieve ones when appropriate. Like stated above; memory functioning takes place here.
When a trauma happens, the hippocampus is physically changed. Brain scans show a reduction in volume. When your hippocampus is reduced, you have more trouble processing memory. This means new and old memories are all mixed up, and, essentially, the brain is unable to detach itself from that trauma. This results in the person relating many things, even if it has nothing to do with the trauma, to the emotions and experiences of that trauma. This is able to be reversed once the trauma is addressed over time.
Back to the prefrontal cortex now. When one experiences intense emotional trauma, it can cause changes in the prefrontal cortex (ventromedial area to be exact). This area produces negative emotional responses queued by the amygdala. It usually produces fear when one is confronted by a stimulus they PERCEIVE as being a threat. It doesn’t actually have to be something threatening the individual’s well-being. However, this part of the brain shows reduction, too. This means that the function is not what it once was and things can, once again, get mixed up and confused. One is likely to perceive unrelated stimuli to that trauma as a threat and will have a negative emotional reaction. What they’re really reacting to is the experience from the past over and over. Good news here too! this can also be revered with time and treatment.
The amygdala! we’re finally here to talk about you. After trauma, it is actually more likely that the amygdala will become hyperactive rather than reduced. Being linked to fear response and emotions, this isn’t a good thing. After trauma, one can experience high volumes of anxiety, panic, and severe stress when encountering even the most mundane stimuli. Again, it can be reversed.
Learning about how trauma impacts those dealing with it is good for everyone. If you’re reading this, maybe it helped justify your feelings for you. BUT, just because there aren’t physical ailments, doesn’t mean a mental illness is any less important or severe!!!
If someone you love has recently experienced a trauma, maybe this is helping you understand what they are going through.
Maybe you’re just plain interested! either way, educating yourself and others is a great thing.
In the following days I’m going to write about primary and secondary trauma, symptoms and treatment/self care after trauma.
Let me know what you think down below!