top of page

How Trauma Affects the Brain

Updated: Jan 31, 2022

This article reviews preclinical and clinical research on the effects of traumatic stress on the brain. Discussion Traumatic stress has wide-ranging effects on brain function and structure, as well as on the neuropsychological components of memory.

Scientists have long known that trauma can have lasting effects on the brain, including the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex, three adjacent brain regions that control memory and panic responses, sometimes collectively called the limbic system. According to neuroimaging studies, the main areas of the brain affected by trauma are the amygdala, hippocampus, and ventromedial prefrontal cortex. In particular, brain damage has profound effects on the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is the emotional response center of the brain, helping people perceive and control emotions.

Research in neuroscience suggests that dysfunction in areas of the brain responsible for threat detection/response and emotion regulation explains many of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Studies in patients with PTSD show changes in brain regions involved in animal studies, including the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex, as well as neurochemical stress response systems, including cortisol and norepinephrine. Stress induces acute and chronic changes in neurochemical systems and specific areas of the brain, resulting in long-term changes in the brain circuits involved in the stress response.34-37 Areas of the brain are thought to play an important role in post-traumatic stress disorder, including the hippocampus, amygdala, and medial prefrontal cortex.

Outside of stress, it helps regulate our emotions and memory, as well as sensory processing, which allows us to use our body effectively in certain events such as learning and problem-solving. This area usually helps us think, plan, and solve problems, and brain scans show it shuts down with much less activity when experiencing or experiencing trauma.

At the same time, the medial prefrontal cortex consciously assesses threats and strengthens or quells the fight-or-flight response. When your brain detects a threat, the amygdala initiates a rapid and automatic "fight or flight" defense response that involves the release of adrenaline, norepinephrine, and glucose to repair the brain and body.

When a person experiences trauma, a part of their brain takes over and triggers the fight-or-flight response to protect us from danger. During acute trauma, the brain stem automatically responds to threats by activating fight, flight, freeze, and collapse responses.

Due to hyperactivation of the fight-or-flight response in the brains of trauma students, the learning and memory centers of the brain are pushed back instead. Over time, the consequences can actually change the brain forever, making it increasingly difficult for the traumatized child to learn while constantly struggling to survive.

When the primary function of a child's brain is self-protection and fear processing, normal brain development suffers. Neurobiological evidence shows that trauma affects both the structure and chemistry of a child's developing brain.

Childhood trauma can even affect the developing brain and cause changes in brain size and function. Trauma in adolescence disrupts the development of this part of the brain and strengthens the systems that allow this part of the brain to communicate effectively with other systems. Trauma changes the chemistry and structure of the brain, and these effects can begin to interfere with normal function.

Toxic stress can interfere with the development of brain structures and other organ systems, and may even increase the risk of developing stress-related diseases in adulthood. However, when the stress response is triggered too many times, it can have lasting effects on the brain into adulthood.

This type of stress physically affects the brain, causing components to rewire and change. "Research shows that chronic stress can alter the chemical and physical structure of the brain.

Those who have suffered emotional trauma tend to be more afraid of traumatic stressors than others. Additionally, victims often overreact to minor triggers, as trauma sensitizes the amygdala, meaning fear responses are triggered by lower levels of stress.

Often, stimuli can cause amygdala hyperactivity if they are related in some way to a traumatic event the person has experienced. Depending on the traumatic event and the individual, the impact of emotional trauma on the brain can range from mild to dramatic. People who have experienced trauma not only suffer from mental health issues such as depression and anxiety but can also have severe consequences of the trauma on the brain.

Many of the behavioral effects of brain injury can be reversed and minimized with regular treatment. In the healing process, you can rewire and retrain your brain to reverse the effects of an injury. Although trauma can damage the brain, the brain has the ability to repair, renew, and rewire pathways so that people with PTSD can be healed.

Understanding how trauma affects the brain could lead to new therapies that can help reduce and minimize some of the painful emotional symptoms associated with trauma. Trauma has a real and lasting effect on the brain, and by understanding it, we can better understand and help our students. We still have a lot to learn about the effects of trauma, but we do know that there are numerous changes going on in the brain and body that can prevent people from living the life they would like to live. Trauma can change your brain on many levels, from how you make decisions to your immediate, subconscious reactions to the world around you.

When trauma occurs, it affects and alters the brain in three main ways, making it difficult for you to deal with daily activities, household chores, and setbacks. Trauma can cause your brain to remain in a state of heightened alertness, suppressing memory and impulse control and locking you into a constant state of intense emotional reaction. Trauma and stress can change the brain function of young people, affecting learning, causing behavioral problems, and triggering a cycle of violence.

Whether it's acute post-traumatic stress disorder or simply trauma caused by previous life experiences, trauma has been shown to cause brain damage that prevents you from functioning at your best. One of the reasons why it can be so difficult to overcome the effects of trauma is that it affects several areas of the brain at the same time. People with PTSD have been found to have reduced function and activation of the prefrontal cortex when exposed to traumatic reminders. This may explain any irrational fears that trauma victims find difficult to overcome. Minor or major, trauma changes the brain in several ways and can lead to long-term negative consequences.


bottom of page