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How Emotional Trauma Changes Your Brain

Updated: Jun 7

Traumatic stress: effects on the brain


Emotional trauma can bring about significant changes in the brain. Changes occur in various ways, such as modified neural pathways, alterations in neurotransmitter levels, and physical transformations in specific brain regions. As we delve further into this topic, we will gain a deeper understanding of these effects. However, let us initially focus on comprehending the concept of emotional trauma.


Woman in emotional trauma after death of a loved one

What is trauma?


In order to comprehend the concept of trauma, it is crucial to establish a few definitions. Trauma represents an emotionally intense term that encapsulates a distressing experience. Any occurrence of violence or other types of harm has the potential to be traumatic. An event can have a big emotional impact and make it hard for the person to keep going on with their life like usual.


Trauma can have a long-term impact on the brain, causing emotional distress and a sense of losing control. This overwhelming emotional response often manifests into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


Parts of Brain Affected by Emotional Trauma


Neural Pathways


Every time a new experience occurs, the brain forms connections between two neurons, known as synapses. These synapses play a crucial role in guiding our responses to the world around us. As the brain develops, it keeps the synapses it finds important through repetition and relevance. This helps create neural pathways that impact our experiences. Repeated exposure to traumatic events can change the way a person sees the world and makes them view everyday experiences through a lens of fear and trauma.

Women suffering from emotional trauma

Amygdala and Insula


MRI scans have shown that people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have larger amygdala and insula in the brain. These areas are involved in emotions like fear, anger, and anxiety. The amygdala is also crucial for memory formation and decision-making. This shows how emotional trauma affects the brain and also changes self-perception and worldview. Long-term depression can cause people to have wrong beliefs about themselves, which can lead to self-sabotage and persistent negative thoughts.


Prefrontal Cortex and Hippocampus


Emotional trauma affects both decision-making and memory. When these areas are activated due to emotional trauma, they can lead to enduring transformations in behavior and personality. People who go through trauma in their family are more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder or depression as they get older. The consequences of such brain damage can persist for numerous decades.


Hormonal Changes in the Brain


Emotional trauma can change how stress hormones are released in your brain, which can harm both your body and mental well-being. In addition, it can flood your brain with chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, which are known as "good" or "happy" chemicals. This can overpower and interfere with your ability to process the pain that you're supposed to feel. Additionally, the emotional impact of trauma may manifest as numbness, fear, or an overarching feeling of helplessness.


What causes the replay of trauma in our memories


When we have an emotional reaction, our brain stores the events as "memory traces" and creates an emotional response. These reactions can be triggered by various experiences, such as witnessing a partner's infidelity or viewing a distressing news event. Initially, the brain adeptly stores these memory traces, but over time, their continuous replay can become overwhelming, leading to internal conflict and cognitive dissonance. To manage this stress, the brain creates fantasies about the traumatic event, allowing individuals to process and cope without experiencing related negative emotions. This mechanism can be so effective that many adults who experienced trauma as children have completely forgotten the actual events.


PTSD and its relationship with Amygdala and Frontal Cortex


During a traumatic event, the amygdala, a key part of the brain involved in memory and emotion, responds to signals from other brain regions, triggering a powerful fight-or-flight reaction. This process is ignited in the prefrontal cortex, which activates memories of the event before spreading throughout the brain and body. The outcome is a state known as hyperarousal, leading to distortions in reality, as well as physical and cognitive conditions like PTSD. People may adapt their behavior patterns, such as avoiding certain situations or going out less, as a way to cope with these effects. These behaviors are often strengthened by thoughts linked to fear or anxiety about potential reminders of the trauma.


How EMDR helps in curing PTSD


When faced with emotional trauma, the brain triggers a stress response that lingers for hours, even days. However, there is a way to overcome this and regain control over your emotional reactions. Enter eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, also known as EMDR – a powerful tool proven to break the cycle of emotional pain. EMDR is particularly effective in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other anxiety disorders by offering relief from distressing memories associated with these conditions. Not only does EMDR help you release these tumultuous emotions, but it also ensures their lasting absence. How? By rewiring your brain, EMDR creates new neural pathways, allowing it to process significant events without triggering any negative responses.


Where do memories reside after being processed in EMDR


In order to understand how EMDR addresses traumatic changes to your brain, it’s important to understand how memories are processed. As memories enter the brain, they become autobiographical information that is stored in the hippocampus. Scientists believe that once the memory is processed and stored in the hippocampus, it disappears from consciousness. The process of remembering a traumatic event can be overwhelming for some people who experience them frequently (e.g., abuse survivors). EMDR is a form of therapy that helps with this processing by helping you re-experience your traumatic event while also having it processed through your current life experience and then integrating it into your memory bank. If you’ve experienced trauma in your past or if you have symptoms resulting from prolonged stress, EMDR can be a beneficial tool in healing and helping you move on from those experiences.


Requirements for processing memories by EMDR?


If you’ve ever experienced a traumatic event, your brain may have stored it in the form of negative emotions. These memories may cause anxiety and depression and can lead to other problems such as substance abuse, eating disorders, and body image concerns. When people transition from one mode of thinking to another, there is a chance that some memories might be suppressed or delayed due to the switch. If this happens, they are unable to get accurate information about their situation which can lead them down a path of fear, doubt and confusion. 


An EMDR therapy session helps the brain process these memories by helping you understand what happened more accurately and move on from past traumas and events. The therapist will use eye movements called bilateral stimulation to help stimulate the right hemisphere of your brain while simultaneously calming your left hemisphere. The therapist will ask you about your current life experiences in order for you to understand how certain events related to these traumas might still be affecting your current day-to-day life. This helps you identify patterns which might be causing stress in your life. Once you identify any patterns, the therapist will work with you on ways to counter them so that you can feel better about yourself overall by alleviating unnecessary stressors.


Conclusion


Those who have experienced a traumatic event are more likely to experience PTSD, which can lead to debilitating mental and physical conditions. EMDR helps to process that trauma, allowing for healing to take place. EMDR is not meant for everyone and certain requirements need to be met before a treatment plan can be put in place.



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