The impact of trauma on the brain

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), trauma is defined as the emotional response someone has to an extremely negative event. In short, trauma is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation and can interfere with an individual’s ability to live a normal life. Trauma is frequently associated with being physically present at the site of a traumatic experience, but it is also possible to experience trauma after hearing accounts of a traumatic event from survivors, watching videos, or news reports of a traumatic event.

The effects of a traumatic event can last weeks, months or years because trauma changes the way our brain sees the world.

Common symptoms of trauma include night terrors, edginess, irritability, poor concentration, mood swings, anger outbursts, panic attacks, difficulty concentrating, and depression. People who are experiencing a traumatic reaction often behave in ways that appear unpredictable, oppositional, volatile, or extreme.

During a traumatic event, our brain analyzes the surroundings and goes into one of three survival modes: Fight, Flight or Freeze. The choice of going into one of these modes is as involuntary as the choice to make your heart beat.

While in one of these survival modes, the brain will become fixated solely on survival above all else; meaning that it uses fear to activate your superpowers. These superpowers cause your heart to beat faster, bringing more oxygenated blood to your muscles, ensuring that you can run faster, jump higher, and lift more weight than you ever have.  This increased blood flow also makes you hyper-aware of your surroundings; people often describe this as a feeling that time slows down.

Disassociation, or mentally separating oneself from an experience, is a coping strategy that our brain can use to protect us during a traumatic event. Disassociation can lead to a perception that a person is detached from their body, floating above it or somewhere else in the room observing the action of their body without being emotionally able to participate in the experience. They may feel like they are in a dream or some alternate reality or as if the experience is simply happening to someone else. In some cases, memory loss can occur due to disassociation; leading to gaps in a person’s memory timeline.

One of the common misunderstandings about trauma is that our brain can turn off “survival mode” the very moment that we are out of the mitigating experience. That is not true because our brain can remain in survival mode for weeks, months, or even years until it determines that we are experiencing safety consistently and therefore, no longer facing perceived threats. In order to experience safety, we must have all of our basic physiological needs met including eating regularly, sleeping soundly enough to rest our body, and generally feeling personal safety by limiting triggers. We also require our emotional needs to be met; feeling we are loved, cared for and needed. The last necessity is to experience moments where we are emotionally present in our bodies and experiencing joy.

For many trauma survivors, the healing process is best summarized by this quote from Mary Anna Radmacher “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.”  As a community, we must recognize their courage, appreciate their journey, help them when they struggle and celebrate their victories.


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