Trauma comes in all shapes and sizes. It can be emotional trauma, physical trauma, or trauma caused by prolonged, chronic stress or unhealthy social, political, or romantic relationships. Oftentimes, trauma is not a fleeting experience, but rather something felt throughout the entire body, reverberating in the way we think, feel, and process information in the future.
Traumatic stress can cause lasting changes in certain areas of the brain. The amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex are all affected by traumatic stress, typically due to increased cortisol production as well as norepinephrine response, which is both a hormone and neurotransmitter that increases heart rate. After experiencing traumatic stress, both cortisol and norepinephrine are quick to release in times of more typical daily stress, causing the body to go into a panicked state regularly.
The amygdala can be found in the middle of the temporal lobe. Its purpose is to detect real threats and activate our fight-or-flight response in the sympathetic nervous system. It also helps us to store new memories about threat-related situations so we can avoid them in the future. The prefrontal cortex’s role is to mitigate unwarranted reactions, regulate attention and situational awareness, and help us to make the best decisions in potentially stressful situations. The function of the hippocampus is within the realm of learning and memory. It’s flexible and changeable and can be damaged by different stimuli.
Think PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychology Today explains that it can cause a lot of trouble in terms of the ability to have healthy, satisfying relationships or tolerate the uncertainties and let-downs that naturally occur in life. It can also cause irrational phobias, disrupted sleep, anxiety and depression, and trouble focusing or concentrating on tasks. Essentially, our thinking center is compromised, our ability to regulate appropriate emotional responses is suppressed, and our fear center is hyperactive.
Other ways these changes in the brain can affect our daily lives is that they can make us hypervigilant, short-tempered, and overall keyed up. This type of unwarranted, chronic daily stress takes a toll on our bodies. It hides out in our joints and tendons, causing tension and, occasionally, injuries. It is tough on our skin and makes us age more rapidly and lose vital sleep, lowers our immune system, and leaves us susceptible to chronic illnesses and inflammation.
However, there are ways to heal, but they take dedication. We have to rewire our brains, which is a big undertaking, yet possible. It takes effort, ritualized repetition, and patience. It is recommended that a traumatized person undergoes psychotherapy with the help of a professional, but mindfulness practices and breathing exercises can be highly effective—they just require total commitment.
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