When we think of trauma, two definitions come to mind. The first is a serious injury to the body, as from physical violence or an accident. The second is severe emotional or mental distress caused by an experience. These two definitions are very intertwined. Someone who has experienced physical trauma also experiences the emotional or mental trauma from that same event as well. Within trauma, there is the acute or sudden experience of pain, fear and uncertainty. There is also chronic trauma from repeated pain or side effects after an accident.
Part of our brain’s job is to protect us from trauma, pain and suffering. In its attempt to protect us, parts of the brain can go into overdrive and create unnecessary responses. The two main parts of the brain that deal with trauma are the amygdala and the hippocampus.
This is your brain’s emotional center. It is responsible for how you react to your experiences. It tells you to be excited when you see a loved one, sad when you watch someone suffering, fearful when you are facing danger, plus so much more. When trauma occurs, it starts to do its job a little too well. The Amygdala can become overly aroused and is more hyper-vigilant to danger. It can look for signs of danger even when you should be safe. Since the amygdala is our protection center, it tries to keep bad things from happening to us. Therefore, it may start to ring false alarms because it’s always looking for some sort of problem or danger around the corner. This can manifest as:
This is the part of your brain that holds on to memory. Your brain remembers how you felt when the traumatic event happened. When your hippocampus is impacted by trauma, your brain starts to struggle between what’s the past or present, meaning that a memory of a traumatic event could start to feel like it’s happening in the present moment. This can be especially true with chronic trauma. After a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), the hippocampus may be unable to write new memories. You may not only be unable to remember the event, but also have a hard time making new memories. The symptoms of the hypoactive hippocampus include:
difficulty learning new skills
The combination of these two parts of the brain over firing and struggling to function can lead to:
Numbness/Shock - You don’t feel any emotions and you can't really process what happened.
Denial - People will say or try to believe that the event wasn't a big deal, or didn't affect them negatively.
Confusion - People can’t understand why or how this happened. They may even have trouble putting timelines or processing new information.
Paranoia - There is an extreme fear that the trauma will happen again, so you become hyper vigilant to protect yourself from the trauma.
Flashbacks - Involuntarily re-experiencing trauma after the event has happened. Even if you logically know the event was in the past, the flashbacks can feel so real that they become debilitating.
Intellectualization - This is where you use logic to explain the events. This can be a useful response; however, if you suppress or deny the emotions around the trauma, then you are preventing your body from healing and may be unable to really move forward from the trauma completely
Depression - This is one of the most common effects of a traumatic event. Depression symptoms can range from sadness to irritation to feeling worthless. Suicidal thoughts may also emerge during this time.
Self-Harm - Any intentional act of hurting yourself. These acts may include cutting, burning, hitting, or inserting dangerous objects into oneself. Most of the time, someone’s self-injurious actions aren’t meant to be life-threatening, but they pose serious risks. Over time, the repeated behavior can become compulsive, and the person may find it challenging to stop.
Anger - Lashing out, blaming others and looking for a fight,
Shame - Feeling as though you could have done something differently to prevent the trauma or that somehow you deserved to experience the trauma The brain post injury can be a wild roller coaster of firing nerves. So, what are you supposed to do?
Read my next newsletter/article to find out about resilience and recovery after trauma.