How Trauma Changes the Brain (And Drives Substance Abuse)
Clinically Reviewed by:
23 February, 2022
Trauma strikes many of us at some point in our lives.
Traumatic events are extremely upsetting situations that put our lives, safety, and well-being in jeopardy. Natural disasters, shootings, sexual abuse, accidents, combat, or the death of a loved one are examples of traumatic events. Trauma can also be ongoing, such as when someone:
Has been (or is currently being) abused
Lives in extreme poverty
Is addicted to drugs and alcohol
Trauma is a key driver of substance abuse.
The Effects of Trauma
Trauma has a considerable influence on the livelihood of individuals who experience it. Trauma can leave a person feeling helpless, which can last for an extended period. Some people suffer from a sense of shame or guilt due to their experience, and their self-worth is damaged. Some survivors have described what they believe to be emotional or spiritual death. Extreme stress on the body can also result in chronic health problems.
Physical and psychological impairments can result from traumatic events. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a type of mental health disorder that develops in people who experience symptoms with extreme intensity over a long time. Symptoms usually include flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the trauma.
Trauma affects everyone differently. One of the essential aspects of assessing trauma's impact on a person is having support in the aftermath of the event. After a traumatic event, a lack of support is often more detrimental than the event itself.
What Happens to the Brain After Trauma?
Humans are experts at adapting to new situations. Our biological systems are built to adapt to the challenges that life throws at us. When we experience trauma, the makeup of our brain can change. Trauma can produce psychological harm to those who develop PTSD due to traumatic events. Certain parts of the brain become overactive while others become underactive, resulting in an imbalance.
Trauma affects the following areas of the brain:
#1. The Amygdala
The amygdala grows larger, triggering "fight or flight" behavior. When a threat is identified, the amygdala, our emotional center in the brain, "sounds the alarm" to the rest of the body. People with a hyperactive amygdala may have a reduced stress tolerance and have a more challenging time controlling their emotions.
#2. The Hippocampus
The hippocampus, which is in charge of short-term memory, shrinks after exposure to trauma. The hippocampus aids in the differentiation of past and present memories. Flashbacks can occur when people with PTSD lose their capacity to distinguish between past and present experiences (re-living traumatic events). This can also cause short-term memory loss.
#3. The Prefrontal Cortex
As the prefrontal cortex changes, it becomes more difficult to control thoughts and emotions. Even years after a traumatic event, a survivor may remain fearful and hypervigilant, no matter what they are doing. They may struggle to verbalize what they are thinking and feeling, or they may become trapped in negative thought patterns. This occurs because their prefrontal cortex activity has been disturbed.
Emotional management, rational reasoning, language, and conscious awareness are all controlled by the prefrontal cortex. When this area of the brain is damaged by trauma, it is unable to regulate fear and other unpleasant emotions, resulting in fear, anxiety, and stress responses when anything similar to their original experience occurs.
The brain learns to sense hazards everywhere as a result of the way our bodies adapt to trauma. For a survivor, this can mean that the world appears to be a constant source of danger. It can also damage a person’s ability to trust others and themselves.
Treating Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
For a person who has PTSD, everyday interactions and duties might be challenging to impossible. The good news is that, while trauma is debilitating, it is also treatable. It might seem like trauma does irreversible damage to your brain, but that’s not true. Our brains are highly adaptable. Neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to form new connections, explains why we can rewire our brains to reverse trauma’s damaging effects.
Thankfully, there are tools available to assist individuals in overcoming their trauma and healing from PTSD:
Mindfulness, which includes practices such as yoga, writing, and meditation, is a skill you may use to train yourself to break free from negative thought patterns.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) are two therapeutic approaches that have been shown to effectively heal the effects of trauma.
Rewiring the Brain
While healing from trauma and PTSD, you can rewire and retrain your brain to reverse the effects of trauma. You can reinforce your prefrontal cortex and get back rationality and control. You can strengthen your hippocampus and help your memory work how it’s supposed to. You can also subdue the hyperactive amygdala, which will help bring you peace
With time and the right help and therapeutic methods, you can find a way to overcome trauma, right down to your neurons.
Trauma Can Be Overcome With Drug Rehab
Trauma affects millions of people across the world. Memories of disturbing events affect our livelihood and can even develop into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Trauma also has the ability to change our brain, affecting the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex.
With the correct treatment, you can overcome trauma. At The Edge Treatment Center, we help individuals struggling with addiction over trauma and PTSD. Our qualified team of professionals can help you rewire your brain and find a sense of peace, no matter how complex your trauma. To learn more about how we can help you heal from addiction and trauma, call (800) 778-1772.