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  • Writer's pictureAzizeh Chamani

The Neurobiology of Trauma: Understanding How Trauma Affects the Brain and Nervous System

A hand holding a white toy model of the brain

“Why can’t I remember what happened?”

“It feels like a blur.”

“Maybe they’re right and it wasn’t that bad.”

“I can’t trust my own mind anymore.”

When a traumatic event occurs, the structure, function, and chemistry of the brain change as a protective mechanism to survive.

What happens in my brain when I experience trauma?

The sympathetic nervous system becomes activated, releasing the stress hormones of cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones prepare the body to handle a real or perceived threat. However, when trauma is ongoing, repeated, or occurs during a critical developmental period, the nervous system can kick into overdrive and lead to chronic stress or hyperarousal.

The limbic system, which stores emotional responses to experiences is disrupted.

The amygdala, or “fear center” of the brain, becomes overactivated, interfering with the hippocampus which is responsible for memory. The hippocampus can be physically affected, shrinking in size. This results in fragmented memory, where the order or detail of events becomes disorganized or incomplete. If you've ever tried to talk or think about a traumatic event and become confused or overwhelmed about what happened when, you've experienced this feeling!

Trauma Responses

A rabbit frozen in fear

Trauma responses are different for everyone, but can often include anxiety, depression, intrusive thoughts, dissociation, self-blame, guilt, avoidance, or numbing.

There are four trauma responses where the brain and body automatically respond to danger – fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. Fight and flight tend to be well understood and easy to recognize, but sometimes freeze and fawn responses can feel confusing or even embarrassing. Understanding that these are normal parts of our nervous system can help to reduce these feelings.

Freeze is a state of tonic immobility, where the nervous system is activated, and the person is not able to fight or flight. This is a feeling of being temporarily paralyzed and unable to move or maybe even speak. It's a prey animal instinct to avoid the attention of a predator.

Fawn is a state of accommodation, where the nervous system responds by going along with appeasing the aggressor, as a way to minimize further violence. This may look like agreeing to things you don't want to do, being overly helpful or cooperative, or even lying to try to please the threatening person and tell them what they want to hear.

Although normal and part of the nervous system’s survival mechanisms, freeze and fawn responses often bring about feelings of shame, guilt, or confusion in the individual’s effort to make sense of a response that seemingly gave up control.

When the nervous system gets pushed beyond its capacity to self-regulate, it can get stuck in an overstimulated “on” state of hyperarousal. This can be experienced as panic, anger or restlessness.

Others will become stuck in the “off” or freeze state; this is where we might see symptoms of dissociation or depression.

How can therapy help?

A man speaking to a therapist

Processing a traumatic event with a trained therapist ensures a safe approach that will ensure you do not experience re-traumatization.

Learning to regulate and work with your nervous system allows you to build a wider window of tolerance that will positively impact your processing of the past trauma experienced and your functioning in the present day.

When you understand how trauma impacts your nervous system, you can begin to respond to these symptoms in a compassionate way, recognizing them as a normal biological response rather than a sign of weakness or danger.

You can begin feeling more empowered and take back some of the control that was lost, as you take an active role in your healing.

Specific trauma approaches like EMDR use bilateral stimulation to reprocess fragmented memories into the brain’s neural networks in a more adaptive and less distressing way. By accessing traumatic memories within the context of a safe therapeutic environment, EMDR promotes the rewiring of neural pathways leading to a reduction in symptoms.

Recovery Is Possible!

If you are suffering from the after-effects of emotional trauma or PTSD, know that recovering from your trauma and gaining autonomy and safety back in your life is possible. Please reach out to us at TBH Therapy -- we can help you get started on your healing journey. Healing and relief of your trauma symptoms is possible!

Discussing and understanding the neurobiology of trauma and how trauma affects the brain provides us with scientific answers to something that society has historically dismissed and silenced. Understanding your brain helps to understand yourself. Don't go it alone -- we can help!

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