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Alcohol and Mental Health

How Trauma Changes the Brain: What the Research Says

July 16, 2023
12 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
July 16, 2023
12 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
July 16, 2023
12 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
July 16, 2023
12 min read
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Reframe Content Team
July 16, 2023
12 min read

Imagine we are ships sailing on the vast ocean of life. Our experiences –– which may include trauma –– are turbulent storms at times, and at others, peaceful sunsets. All of these different moments shape our journeys.

Despite the rough weather, our ships have an amazing ability to repair and reroute. Trauma may alter our course –– but it doesn't define our destination. And It doesn’t define who we are.

Trauma can cause lasting changes in the brain, altering its structure and function in many ways. Let's explore how this happens –– and how to heal.

Understanding Trauma and Its Impact on the Brain

Trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience that overwhelms our ability to cope. It can be a single event, multiple events, or a set of circumstances that is experienced as physically or emotionally harmful. It can be caused by one-time horrible experiences –– like physical abuse, sexual assault, witnessing violence, or surviving natural disasters –– or enduring long-term neglect or emotional abuse.

Trauma changes the brain. It alters its structure and function, affecting how we process emotions, how we think –– and even our risk for mental health issues. Understanding these changes is crucial for those of us who have experienced trauma, as it provides insight into why we may struggle with certain aspects of our lives.

When we live through trauma, our brains respond to protect us from harm. Think of its response as a built-in alarm system.

When faced with danger, the brain shifts into reactive mode, activating the sympathetic nervous system and signaling the release of stress hormones, preparing the body for survival mode –– fight, flight, or freeze. Our heart rate increases, our muscles tense up for action, and our senses become hyper-alert.

However, when trauma occurs repeatedly or is particularly severe, this protective mechanism can go into overdrive, leading to changes in the brain's structure and function.

For instance, trauma can shrink certain parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus (a region involved in learning and memory) and enlarge others, like the amygdala (the area responsible for fear responses).

Neuroplasticity: You Are Not Your Past

This brings us to an important concept called neuroplasticity — our brain's ability to change by forming new connections between neurons (brain cells). While neuroplasticity allows us to learn new skills and adapt to different environments, it also means our brains are vulnerable to negative influences like trauma.

This means repeated exposure to traumatic events can "rewire" our brains — altering how we think, feel and behave.

There is an upside: just as our brains can change in response to negative experiences, they also have the ability to heal and recover.

The Effects of Trauma on Emotional Regulation

Trauma can make emotional regulation a struggle.

Emotional regulation is our ability to manage and respond to emotional experiences in a healthy way.

Trauma can disrupt this process. It can lead to an overactive amygdala (the part of the brain that governs fear responses) and underactivity in the prefrontal cortex (which helps us control emotions and make rational decisions.) This imbalance can result in heightened emotional reactions and difficulty managing stress.

Having a history of trauma can result in intense feelings –– of anxiety, depression, or anger. We may struggle to calm down once we’re upset, or grapple with persistent feelings of sadness or worry. These symptoms demonstrate the changes trauma causes in specific brain regions involved in emotional regulation.

Neuroimaging studies have found alterations in the anterior cingulate cortex (which plays a key role in emotion processing and regulation) and in the insula (involved in our awareness of our emotional states).Healing involves restoring balance within these neural circuits — helping us regain control over our emotions.

Cognitive Changes Associated With Trauma

Cognition is an umbrella term for the mental processes that make our lives happen, from recognizing familiar faces to solving complex problems. It involves various functions such as attention, memory, and decision-making — all of which trauma impairs.

People who have experienced trauma often report difficulties with attention: they struggle to focus or are easily distracted. Memory issues are also common, including challenges in recalling specific details about events or learning new information. Decision-making can become overwhelming; we avoid making choices altogether or act impulsively instead.

The prefrontal cortex — a region involved in executive functions like decision-making and impulse control — can be affected by trauma. Similarly, prolonged trauma-related stress may cause shrinkage in the hippocampus, an area crucial for memory formation and retrieval.

If you often struggle with cognitive or emotional tasks that others find easy, trauma could play a role.

The Link Between Trauma and Mental Health Disorders

Experiencing trauma doesn't just affect emotional regulation and cognitive functions. It can also increase your risk for mental illnesses — much as an untreated wound can make us more susceptible to infections.

There’s a strong link between trauma and an increased risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and substance abuse disorders. For instance, individuals who have experienced traumatic events are up to six times more likely to develop PTSD — a condition characterized by intrusive memories, avoidance behaviors, negative changes in mood and cognition, and hyperarousal or reactivity.

Underlying these are changes to those key brain regions — the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and hippocampus — as well as disruptions to brain chemicals that regulate mood and reward.

What’s more, trauma can lead to dysregulation of the body's stress response system, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, resulting in elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Over time, this can contribute to depressive symptoms. Similarly, changes in dopamine — a neurotransmitter involved in reward processing — may make us more vulnerable to substance abuse after trauma. If any of this sounds like you, it’s okay to seek out professional help. You deserve to heal!

Healing From Trauma: Neuroplasticity and Recovery

While trauma can lead to significant changes in the brain, it's crucial to remember that our brains are not static. They possess a remarkable ability for change and growth, called neuroplasticity.

Just as traumatic experiences can alter our brain, positive experiences and interventions can help reshape it.

Research on neuroplasticity provides hope for trauma survivors. Therapeutic interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and mindfulness-based practices have been shown to promote healing.

  • CBT helps us develop healthier thought patterns, which can strengthen connections within the prefrontal cortex — the area responsible for rational thinking.
  • EMDR uses bilateral stimulation — like eye movements or tapping — to help process traumatic memories, potentially reducing hyperreactivity in the amygdala.
  • Mindfulness encourages present-moment awareness and stress reduction, promoting overall brain health.

These therapies illustrate how understanding neuroscience can inform effective treatment strategies. They offer hope — and they show us that while trauma may change our brains, we have the power to change them back.

Here are some key takeaways:

  1. Seek professional help: If you've experienced trauma, consider reaching out to a mental health professional who specializes in trauma therapy.
  2. Practice mindfulness: Engage in mindfulness exercises daily to promote present-moment awareness and reduce stress.
  3. Stay active: Regular physical activity, like yoga or running, is beneficial for both your physical health and mental well-being.
  4. Cut back on drinking: Alcohol can interfere with your brain's healing process. Experiment with mindful drinking or sobriety, and seek support whenever you need it. There are plenty of better ways to relax!
  5. Educate yourself about trauma: Understanding how trauma affects your brain will empower you through recovery.

The Takeaways

Remember: our brains are shaped by experiences, but they're also primed for growth and transformation. Trauma changes our brain –– but healing can, too!

With resilience, therapeutic interventions, and the remarkable power of neuroplasticity on our side, healing is within reach.

Trauma can significantly alter the brain's structure and function, but it doesn't write our destiny.

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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