How Trauma Affects the Brain, Part 2

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Photo By Graur Codrin

Last week I wrote about my upcoming exploration of how trauma affects the brain on my new radio show, ‘Your Life After Trauma.’ I learned so much and heard such positive ideas about recovery from my guests! Dr. Rachel Yehuda and Dr. Dave Ziegler both spoke eloquently about how trauma affects the brain, and why we should be hopeful that the effects can be changed.

Today, an overview of the highlights from the show:

The show opened with Dr. Yehuda explaining what happens to the brain during trauma. She said,

Trauma affects all of us and gives us a chance to express our shared humanity.

During a trauma the individual is responding to a threat:

  • the brain gives signals of trauma
  • the brain’s main function is to get through the event
  • the brain helps us survive by activating biologic reactions involved in helping us mount the fight/flight response
  • the sympathetic nervous system releases adrenalin (your heart racing and the acceleartion of your breathing signifies the release of adrenalin, which readies you to move)
  • the brain lowers the chemicals released to help us with regular functions (parasympathetic nervous system energy is diverted to help you cope with surviving)
  • hormones are released to reign in stress response to stop long term damage to your body.

Yehuda says not all brains reset themselves after trauma but the always tries to recalibrate. “When things happen to us we don’t go back to the way we were,” she explains. “After trauma, the brain’s job is to remember what happened and develop survival skills for the future. The brain integrates the lesson of trauma; it recalibrates to do better next time. The experience of recalibration in the brain can be painful.”

So, what hope do we have of recovery? Yehuda answered: “The good news is, if your brain can change in response to one environment that is trauma it can change in response to treatment, too. Our brains are capable of change.”

I like the sound of that, don’t you? Dr. Dave Ziegler went on to discuss how that change can be made. He said, ”The goal of treatment (something parents and friends can facilitate, in addition to the survivor) is positive brain change. Trauma changes how the brain operates. There is no returning to normal. What we often say is there is now a new normal. It’s not necessarily negative if the right help is given. There is major change.”

Things adults, teens and kids can do to help themselves include:

  • Relaxation techniques, which help resolves effects of trauma on the brain
  • Understanding what’s going on
  • Exercise, particularly aerobic, does very important things in the brain including encouraging stem cell development and regeneration of neurons
  • Promoting higher reasoning centers in the brain (for example, saying to a survivor, ‘I want you to tell me what you were just thinking when you did that particular behavior’ encourages receptive and expressive regions of the brain to formulate answers and thoughts,which raise processes to higher level rather than reactive level
  • Social support and connections
  • Meditatation

Professional help offers effective approaches, including:

  • changing perceptions of the individual of the self, other people, the world
  • change the process system from reactive stress producing limbic reacitivty to thoughtful consideration in using the executive functions of frontal region of the brain
  • repairing the damage that’s been done through attachment through developing resiliency and learning to self-heal

Above all, Dr. Ziegler said the most important thing is to get the kind of trauma treatment you’re going to need at the right time in your life.

Want to hear the full interview (plus a survivor talking about how trauma has affected her brain?? You can listen to it through the link on our ‘Your Life After Trauma’ radio show page.

How has trauma affected your brain?

Photo acknowledgement.


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