Emotional Trauma – The Traumatized Brain
When asked to think about the word “trauma”, many may be transported back to scenes of their childhood, or moments of powerlessness and fear. The memories caused by emotional trauma stay with us, however destructive they may be, and are known to lead to extreme anxiety, anger, and a host of other concerns that place one’s mental health at risk. Why do we hold on knowing the risks, or rather, why can’t we move on?
The answer lies within our traumatized brain.
What happens to our physical brains when we are exposed emotional trauma?
As painful and damaging as physical abuse can be, emotional abuse brought on by excessive and cruel punishment, seclusion, repetitive feelings of paralyzing fear, and anxiety, can leave lasting effects on the physical structure of our brains that match or even exceed that of physical traumatic abuse. Research has even proven that the younger we are when exposed to such traumatic experiences, the more detrimental and long-lasting the effects of that trauma can be.
Bruises and wounds can heal and even disappear altogether, but the memories and emotional damage, exists long after the traumatic threat dissipates. These emotional scars often remain hidden deep inside of our being, consciously and unconsciously influencing all aspects of how we think, feel, and behave. Although the scars brought on by emotional trauma are not outwardly visible, the effects of those scars are very real and very much experienced.
They are so real and powerful that they can in fact literally change how the brain develops and functions throughout our lives.
How do our brains develop?
Our brain development depends on two main contributing influences: Genes and Environment. Genes give our brains a set of directions to follow as it matures, develops and grows, whereas the environment influences how those directions are followed and the path that those directions take.
For example; genes may dictate that our brains must produce and process a certain amount of a stress hormone called Cortisol. This brain chemical in healthy amounts helps our mind and body to manage stress. However, when considering brain development, excessive or chronic amounts of cortisol produced can damage an area of the brain called the limbic system, responsible for facilitating motivation, emotion, learning, and memory.
Specifically within the limbic system, it is the hippocampus that is responsible for long- and short-term memory and for processing information. In a non-traumatic environment, the cortisol levels may be normal and managed quite successfully without residual effects. Conversely, in an emotionally and traumatically abusive situation that produces chronic feelings of stress, cortisol levels rise, and are often produced in excess.
Not only does the surplus of cortisol present as difficult to manage, but disproportionate amounts can change the way other hormones and chemicals in the brain are produced and processed. Additionally, excessive amounts of cortisol can even change and rewire neural connections in the brain, thereby damaging and affecting the structure and development of the hippocampus.
This damage and change can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke produced research results that clearly showed that people who experienced excessive exposure to abuse and trauma in their childhoods exhibited similar change and damage in this part of the brain to that of war veterans.
Do different types of abuse have different types of effects on the brain?
There are many kinds of trauma, and trauma can affect us all in different kinds of ways. However; the research that confirms that the biology and structure of the brain is influenced by abuse in predictable ways demonstrates the idea that the body tends to protect itself in a manner common to most individuals.
Many survivors of sexual abuse have stated that they “checked-out” during the traumatic experience and some survivors even report having no recollection of any of the painful details. This is thought to be our body’s way of defending itself against unbearable pain and discomfort.
For example, there are many types of traumatic experiences, but the emotionally damaging part of the abuse that is internalized may or may not be consciously remembered. Results of a study completed with adult female survivors of childhood sexual abuse, led to new understanding of particular developmental alterations in the somatosensory cortex of the brain. This part of the brain is responsible for processing our physical and perceptual sensations to which different parts of our body respond, as those who had been sexually abused were reported to have thinned cortex corresponding with the genital areas. This is theorized to create sexual problems in adulthood, including a reduction of desire or positive physical sensation, or even chronic genital pain, all of which may become focuses in later treatment. So even if victims don’t consciously or clearly remember all the details of the trauma that happened during their development, their bodies are capable of storing these memories as bodily sensations.
While at first glance, this appears like a ‘good’ thing that enables our survival when still subject to the abusive situation, it can result in changes and damage to the part of our brain that process future thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Additionally, these brain changes can make us more susceptible to experiencing depression, anxiety, feelings of rage or hostility, as well as different types of dissociative or avoidance behavior and more likely to fall prey to a substance use disorder.
What can I do to make my brain function better?
The brain response to traumatic situations, including the structural and biological changes, all flow from an attempt to protect our bodies from stress and cortisol overload, and can be thought of as the brain on “survival mode”. Unfortunately, these changes can lead to pervasive emotional dysregulation, relationship difficulties and personal mental health challenges well into adulthood and long after the trauma has passed. However, despite these survival-focused adaptations in our brains, we can in fact make changes in our daily personal lives that will help our brains to heal.
Our brains are continually changing! Due to something called neuroplasticity, our brains reorganize and restructure every single day. These important and continuous changes in our brains, known as “malleability”, are influenced by our environmental experiences. The choices in lifestyle we make and the overall health of our bodies has an enormous influence on our brains on a daily basis.
For example, exposing our brains to supportive counseling, healthy problem solving, coping skills, and positive communication skills can actually help the brain to restructure and heal. With the consistent application and practice of healthy emotional and physical experiences, our brains are able to develop new neural connections, regulate the release of cortisol, and replace the automatic way we respond to stressors in our lives.
Whether sharing your past experiences with an individual counselor, or in a group setting with others who have shared similar circumstances, counseling can have a beneficial impact on starting the healing process. Even reading this article and learning that there is a way to change the brain brings the possibility of healing and hope.
The brain is malleable, it changed once in order to help you survive, now it can change in such a way that it helps you to help you heal. With the right support and exposure to healthy, more encouraging influences, you and your brain can heal from past traumas and be available to create and experience a future of more positive experiences.
Contact Nsight Psychology & Addiction, where your tomorrow can start today.
Call us now at (949) 629- 3730.