Trauma changes brain chemistry by impacting the amygdala, hippocampus, and neocortex. This is why healing from trauma is a process for so many people.
The amygdala is the emotional control center of the brain. Any time a threat is perceived, the amygdala will send the alarm, and the system will begin to engage in fight/flight/freeze/fawn behaviors (the body’s survival responses).
In a post-trauma brain, the amygdala often operates in overdrive and is on high alert. When the amygdala is triggered by anything that looks, sounds, or feels like the past trauma, the system responds as if the past trauma is happening again at the current moment.
Sometimes the amygdala will send the alarm long after the threat has passed, which can dysregulate the nervous system. The body and brain can get stuck in a state of high alert (fight and flight symptoms) or in a state of immense shutdown (freeze and fawn symptoms).
The hippocampus is the part of the brain that processes and retrieves memories. Since traumatic memories often do not get processed and stored in the same way that non-traumatic memories do, a post-trauma hippocampus can struggle with distinguishing the difference between the traumatic event and the memory of it.
The hippocampus can also impact how traumatic memories are recalled, leading survivors to sometimes only remember fragments of the traumatic event. When it comes to chronic and complex trauma, the hippocampus can shrink, and this reduction can lead to further difficulties with distinguishing past threats from present triggers.
The neocortex is the part of the brain responsible for perception, attention, decision-making, and language. When the amygdala sends the alarm, the nervous system goes into survival mode, and the functional abilities of the neocortex become significantly suppressed.
When the neocortex is less accessible, the brain will operate out of survival mode instead of decision-making mode. This is why people who are activated and experiencing PTSD symptoms may engage in behaviors that they normally would not when operating from a regulated brain state.
Since a post-trauma brain can…
Keep one in a state of constant hyper-vigilance or chronic shutdown…
Create challenges in distinguishing past memories from the present…
Make the decision-making and logical part of the brain less accessible…
There is so much compassion to offer those who are healing from trauma.
When healing from trauma, the great news is that due to neuroplasticity, the brain can form new neural networks and reverse some of the negative impacts trauma has had on the brain. The brain can modify, adapt, and change its structure and functioning throughout various life experiences.
With the proper trauma treatment and a lot of self-compassion, the impact of trauma can be slowly reversed, and the nervous system can become more and more regulated again. Although this process does not happen overnight and is a long journey for many people, brain coherence and healing are possible.
From the desk of Janelle Stepper