You brain isn’t a steady, fixed thing. It’s constantly changing and adjusting, influenced by your external circumstances. For instance, there are things you can do to improve your memory, increase your capacity for learning, and better your problem-solving ability. However, negative experiences can also change your brain. Trauma in particular can have serious effects on your mind. Trauma can come from anything from combat to domestic abuse to car accidents. Here are some of the ways trauma changes your brain.
Trauma mainly affects three regions of the brain—the amygdala, the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala contributes to your ability to feel emotions, including fear and anxiety. The hippocampus is part of the system in the brain that regulates emotions—in particular, it’s associated with long-term memory. The prefrontal cortex moderates personality and helps us process risk and fear.
Together, these regions influence the stress and fear response in humans. Normally, these parts of the brain work together to produce a healthy amount of fear in appropriate situations. For people who have experienced trauma or who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the signals between the three parts don’t function properly.
The hippocampus in those who have experienced trauma has a reduce ability to differentiate between past experiences and present situations. It’s part of what causes flashbacks in people with PTSD or even mild forms of post-traumatic stress. Changes in the prefrontal cortex make it harder for sufferers to regulate their responses to fear, stress and anxiety. Unlike the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, trauma actually causes activity in the amygdala to increase. People have higher levels of anxiety and extreme stress.
When a sufferer experiences something that reminds them of their trauma, their brains shift into survival mode, even if they’re not really in any danger. A healthy brain will move from reactive mode to restorative mode, but a brain changed by trauma will stay in that reactive state.
If you’re having trouble coping with a traumatic experience, seeking help from a professional therapist or counselor can help you learn to retrain your brain to help you deal with triggering situations.