How Trauma Alters the Brain


We’ve known for a long time that traumatic experience alters people’s brains, but not exactly where and what the alterations are.

One of today’s leading experts in trauma and PTSD is Bessel van der Kolk, MD. His research gives us a better understanding of the specific ways trauma changes brains.

Three Brain Changes

According to van der Kolk, there are three significant ways the brain alters in response to a trauma:

  1. One alteration occurs in the primitive part of our brain responsible for making sure the body is alive and well. After experiencing a traumatic event, this part of the brain becomes driven by fear, heightening an individual’s threat perception. So, where other people see a manageable situation, the traumatized person sees danger.
  2. The second alteration occurs higher up in the brain, in an area that acts like a filter. This filter allows data that is relevant to the present situation into our awareness, and filters out the irrelevant information. Going through a traumatic event can disrupt this filtering mechanism so data that others naturally ignore a traumatized person might be attentive to. This makes focusing on what is appropriate and helpful in ordinary situations difficult and confusing.
  3. The third alteration occurs down the midline of our brain. The midline area gives us our sense of self. Trauma can lead to a blunting or numbing of this area, protecting us from the pain, terror, or grief associated with trauma. Unfortunately, when the sense of self and our difficult emotions are dampened, so are feelings of sensuality, excitement, connection, and pleasure.

It is easy to see how some of the symptoms and behaviors associated with PTSD - being easily startled, feeling on edge, emotional numbness, social avoidance, hyper-vigilance, and frightening thoughts - reflect the brain changes van der Kolk discovered.

Van der Kolk and other researchers hope that knowing specifically how our brain reacts to trauma will lead to more effective PTSD treatment interventions.

Source: nicabm
Photo credit: A Health Blog


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