Neuroplasticity of the Brain and Trauma
Today I wanted to talk to you about the ways our brains respond to trauma. So first we must:
1. Define trauma
2. Discuss the differences between chronic and acute trauma
3. Explore when the experiences started occurring in one’s life
A lot of people assume that trauma can only be defined as something horrible or tragic that has happened either directly to them or being a witness to such an event. And while part of this is true, there are also more subtleties in trauma that can go unrecognized for years.
Neuroplasticity of the Brain and Trauma
Some of the more obvious examples of significant trauma would include: going to war, a near death experience, loss of a family member, being diagnosed with a terminal illness, divorce, natural disasters, and the list goes on. Experiences that are overwhelming and life-threatening, these are what we call “Big T” traumas.
Disturbing life events that are seemingly smaller are called “little t” traumas. These traumas are usually repetitive in nature, accumulative in damage and can seem relatively benign although they are actually life altering, such as: hearing your mother or father yelling or criticizing you, or being bullied at school. These repetitive “little t” traumas often lead to feelings of shame and loneliness and can be even more damaging than their “Big T” counterparts.
FACT: Studies have shown that it is actually the “little t” traumas that show more severe PTSD symptomology when compared to the “Big T” traumas.
I think it is safe to say that everybody to some extent has experienced trauma in his or her life. These traumas might involve something like being in a minor fender bender accident, losing a job, getting a bad grade, or losing a basketball game. Whether you have endured something that is considered a “T” trauma or “t” trauma, it takes a toll on how your brain responds to its environment and can impact your mood and your relationships with others.
Something else to take into account when discussing trauma is the duration of which these experiences lasted, i.e.- chronic or acute. The more enduring a trauma is the more impact it can have on your brain.
For instance, a survivor of chronic childhood abuse suffered the repetition of this trauma over a period of time. Research has shown that brain activity in these individuals differs in comparison to individuals who have not experienced chronic trauma like this. However, someone who has experienced an acute trauma such as being in a horrific car accident (a one-time event) also display a change of neuron activity in his or her brain. The more chronic or widespread a traumatic experience, the bigger the toll it takes on your brain.
Another important factor when considering the impact of trauma depends on when these experiences begin in one’s life. Research indicates that the earlier the trauma begins, the more influence it has over brain development, relational experiences, mood, and formation of self-concept.
So The Big Question Is How Does Trauma Affect Your Brain?
Your brain is plastic. No, I don’t mean plastic like the stuff pens or Tupperware are made from. What I mean is that your brain is moldable, adaptable. From a neuro-cognitive standpoint it’s called neuroplasticity. We are born with about 100 billion neurons in our brain. By the time we are adults, we have around 300 million neurons connecting the left and right hemispheres together.
Why such a difference? As we grow and develop our brains go through something called “synaptic pruning”. It is a primary function to process sensory input, select out and delete information that is unnecessary, and store for future use what is potentially beneficial for survival.
From the moment we are born, our brains begin to decipher our environment and experiences and weed out weaker neurons and make room for strengthening the stronger and more relevant neurons. Neurons begin to connect to each other through our experiences, making the neural activity more efficient. It is a very important process for cognitive growth but it can be negatively impacted by our experiences.
Let’s talk about different regions of the brain and how they are affected by trauma. The frontal cortex is the anterior portion of the brain, which governs decision-making, moderates social behaviors, emotion regulation, focused attention, and the ability to observe mindfulness. The frontal cortex helps to link information from previously stored data.
Sounds important, right? Well when we experience something traumatic or otherwise overwhelming or scary, our frontal cortex “shuts down”. It makes the information-processing part of our brain become dormant, thus making the experience of the event unable to be fully processed.
While our frontal cortex shuts down, our amygdala (which plays a key role in the processing
of emotions) and hippocampus (which deals with the formation of long-term memories) become disrupted and “ignited”, or turned on. The amygdala is your flight or fight response, and the hippocampus is how the memory becomes stored in your brain.
So think about it– while you are experiencing something traumatic, your information center shuts down, your flight or fight adrenal response turns on, and the memory of the event, because it couldn’t appropriately be processed, is stored improperly.
So we continue our lives with a fragmented and unprocessed memory. This means that we can become easily triggered in our environments and re-experience the memory by means of any association to the event. This is why for someone who was, for example, hit by a red car may become triggered in the future when he sees a red car. All those thoughts and feelings come flooding back, your fight or flight response ignites again, and it just feels terrible. Your brain has difficulty separating that traumatic car crash from a red car that poses no threat.
Imagine having a trauma occur over and over again. If your memories of traumatic events are never being stored properly and your amygdala is always on alert, it makes sense that you might be having symptoms of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, hypervigilance, issues with self worth or self esteem, and troubles with your relationships with others.
Studies have shown that individuals who have experienced trauma, especially chronic trauma have enlarged amygdala’s and less neuron activity in the frontal cortex. In other words, trauma literally changed the neural connections and formation of parts of the brain. Research found that those affected by a repeated trauma also have smaller hippocampus’, which has been affected by an overhaul of cortisol and adrenaline. Repeated trauma leaves the amygdala on ever-present alert status, making you feel at times paranoid, hyper aware of your surroundings as if looking for danger, and being easily startled.
All of these memories and emotions get stuck in our nervous system if left unprocessed and can lead to negative self-beliefs, maladaptive affects states, and related negative behaviors that are merely the symptoms of these unprocessed painful memories.
The good news is that the brain is still plastic. This means that despite whatever trauma one has gone through, with help and treatment from a professional you can learn to adapt to healthier ways of coping and relating to self and others. This is the power of neuroplasticity.
All too often I have clients call me wanting to schedule a first appointment to discuss their feelings of depression or low self-worth or anxiety without mention of trauma. Little do they associate these feelings with their past experiences and how these experiences have disrupted the neurological memory network in their brain.
A lot of times it is actually a relief for them to come to understand the origins of their thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Trauma and PTSD are synonymous with a memory disorder. Sometimes getting in touch with one’s past can be the solution for adaptively “rewiring” the brain to better store these memories, and attend to any negative self-beliefs and other symptomology of trauma (depression, anxiety, etc.).
If you have been experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, or negative self-beliefs, unlock the door from your past and observe if there is any trauma. Seek a professional to help you understand what it is that happened, how it has affected your life thus far and how to move efficiently towards a healthy and positive future.
Katie Porter, M.A., LPC