Main Office
800 Roosevelt Road,
Building C, Suite 206
Glen Ellyn, IL 60137

(630) 423-5935

Why Understanding What Trauma Does to the Brain Helps You Heal

Monarch butterfly symbolizing the rime required for change

Trauma happens when you experience an event as physically or emotionally harmful or even life-threatening. Your body’s ability to cope is overwhelmed. Even though the event passes, trauma has lasting adverse effects on a person’s mental, physical, social, emotional, and spiritual well-being. With nearly 61% of men and 51% of women experiencing trauma in their lifetime, it’s essential to understand what trauma does to the brain to be able to heal and minimize life-long adverse effects.

Trauma: Brain and Body

Harmful or life-threatening events cause the brain to trigger the release of adrenaline, activating the fight or flight response so that you can prepare to run or defend yourself. If your brain perceives you are in danger, it works hard to get you out. At times like this, a lot of energy courses through you.

The Fight or Flight Response

It’s important to understand that your fight or flight response is an automatic response. When a threat is present, the body pauses all functions that are involved in the usual “rest and digest” state. These physiological changes help improve the chances of survival. Some changes are increased heart and breathing rate, the release of stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline), dilated pupils, and increased blood pressure, to name a few. It’s a total body shift to a threat response state.

As long as you can run from the threat or fight back, these physiological changes will continue. When you’re “caught” or can no longer run or fight, you freeze. This freezing is when your nervous system is too overwhelmed to offer any other solutions to survive. This is the point where most trauma occurs.

Related Reading: What it Means When Depression and Anxiety Team Up

Trauma and the Brain

depression anxiety sickWhen adrenaline is released, the prefrontal cortex essentially shuts down. The prefrontal cortex is part of the
frontal lobe, which controls primary cognitive skills, like emotional expression, problem-solving, memory, language, judgment, and motor control. One of the biggest jobs of the prefrontal cortex is executive functioning, which is involved in decision-making, problem-solving, self-control, and acting in ways that align with long-term goals. When the prefrontal cortex goes offline during the threat response, high reasoning and language structures stop.

Trauma effectively imprints the stressful event in the brain. The memory of the traumatic event is stored in the amygdala, which ensures you do not find yourself in this dangerous situation again. However, the amygdala doesn’t save the event as if it was a story – the amygdala stores the emotional significance of the traumatic event as experienced by our five senses. So the memory is fragments of visual images, smells, sounds, tastes, or touches.

Trauma Triggers

ice-fragmentsSince the traumatic event is stored as sensory fragments, it can be hard to verbalize and attach language to it. Instead, your physical body is what is holding the trauma. The traumatic energy of these fragments is stored in your body and can be triggered by physical or sensory input in some way reminiscent of the trauma. Even though the sensory information that triggers the memory of the traumatic event is usually from an insignificant, regular event, the brain misinterprets it as dangerous.

This means anything internal (like thoughts or feelings) or something external (like a situation, place, sound, or smell) can be enough to remind your brain of the past trauma. When your mind is reminded of the trauma, the brain wants to warn you of impending danger – even when there isn’t any.

So it can feel like triggers come out of the blue. But identifying the triggers can help you work towards coping with them. Here are some questions you can ask yourself when determining what was triggering in a situation:

  • In what type of situation was I?
  • What was happening around me?
  • What emotions was I feeling?
  • To what sensory inputs was I exposed?
  • What types of thoughts were going through my head?
  • How did my body feel?

Related Reading: Can Childhood Trauma Cause Anxiety? Yes, & Here’s How

How to Cope with Trauma Triggers

image of woman breathing deepIdentifying your triggers is the first step towards coping with them – because you cannot avoid them all. Increased awareness of the source for your triggers also helps you recognize why you are reacting the way you are. This understanding can help you feel more in control because there are patterns and predictability to what you are experiencing.

Here are some other healthy strategies to lessen their impact:

  • Mindfulness
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Social support
  • Journaling
  • Self-soothing

Related Reading: 3 Ways Childhood Trauma Can Affect Your Adult Relationship

Trauma Differences

It’s necessary to recognize that every person is unique in terms of experiences, reactions, and resilience. So, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach for treating trauma. Here are some nuances that should be considered:

Trauma Healing Options

There are numerous therapy approaches to work towards healing from trauma. However, it is vital to find an approach and therapist that works for you. Trauma-focused treatment works to acknowledge and integrate the traumatic event into your life, not minimize or remove it.

Related Reading: What You Need to Know Before Pursuing PTSD Treatment with EMDR

Monarch butterfly symbolizing the rime required for changeUnprocessed trauma can be paralyzing and disrupt the quality of your life. A qualified trauma therapist will guide you through the healing of your trauma, empowering you to become an active participant in life. If you are in the Chicagoland area, please reach out to us in our locations in Glen Ellyn, Chicago (Jefferson Park)Sycamore, or Yorkville for help and support. You do not need to go through this alone.

Rhonda Kelloway, LCSW, SEP

Rhonda Kelloway is the owner and principal therapist at Life Care Wellness, a group psychotherapy practice in Glen Ellyn, Sycamore, Yorkville, and Chicago (Jefferson Park neighborhood), Illinois. She is a trauma specialist utilizing a Somatic Experiencing framework to utilize the body’s wisdom in healing. She also uses EMDR and a variety of traditional psychotherapy approaches in her work. In addition to being a psychotherapist, she is a trained divorce and family mediator.