Trauma and Its Neurological Effects

Trauma — a severely distressing and emotional experience — can have long-lasting effects for one’s mental and emotional well-being. Trauma presents differently in everyone. It may result from neglect, abuse, accidents, natural disasters, or experiencing forms of violence. Either way, the side effects of trauma are more than just psychological; in fact, the effects on the brain are equally significant.

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The Neurological Effects of Trauma

Trauma impacts normal functioning by altering brain chemistry and specific parts of the brain structure, such as the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. All these parts combined can affect memory, behavior, and the ability to regulate emotions.

The Amygdala

The amygdala is a small structure in the brain that plays a role in processing and understanding emotions, memory recollection, and also controls the fear response. When someone experiences trauma, the amygdala goes into overdrive. They become more sensitive to stimuli, anxiously fearing a trigger of their experience. Due to changes in the amygdala, individuals may perceive threats in non-threatening situations.

The Hippocampus

The hippocampus is responsible for forming new memories and learning information. Trauma actually causes the hippocampus to shrink, which ultimately impairs memory to where individuals may struggle with distinguishing between past and present experiences. This symptom is also known as flashbacks, and is a common sign of PTSD.

The Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher-level functioning, such as decision-making, social behaviors, and emotional regulation. Trauma can weaken the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, leading to irrational fears that may be difficult for the individual to overcome. Triggers can have a devastating effect, and cause an inability to regulate emotions once in a heightened state.

The Stress Response System

The stress response system, also known as the “fight or flight” system, is chronically activated after a trauma experience. Our brains are not meant to live in this state, so it can have drastic effects on physical and psychological health.

Elevated Cortisol Levels

Cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone,” is released during times of perceived danger. After experiencing trauma, cortisol is present at high levels in the body, and can lead to:

  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Headaches
  • Digestive or intestinal issues
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Weight gain
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Cardiovascular diseases

Immune System Suppression

Chronic stress can weaken the immune system. This causes individuals to be more susceptible to diseases and illnesses, which can contribute to an increase in mental health symptoms. Our bodies naturally produce white blood cells to fight off infections, however, with a high stress level, cortisol suppresses the production of these cells, making it more difficult for healing.


Neuroinflammation is inflammation of the nervous system tissue found in the brain. Because of this, individuals are more at risk for developing mental disorders like anxiety or depression. It can also lead to long-term neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Trauma Recovery

Trauma does not necessarily mean free from trauma symptoms, however, there is hope for emotional stability and wellness. One of the best ways to recover and heal from traumatic experiences would be to engage in different forms of therapy.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is one of the most common therapeutic approaches, and it involves individuals learning to identify and challenge their negative thought patterns. Professionals help understand the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and teach effective coping skills to help with emotional regulation.

Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR is a method that has been specifically designed for trauma healing. It involves thinking of traumatic memories while practicing body stimulations, such as eye movement. This process helps with reprocessing to reduce their emotional intensity when experience trauma triggers.


Mindfulness practices, such as meditation or yoga, can help with emotional processing and regulation, as well as being present and grounded in reality. This, along with therapy, can be great tools to utilize for overcoming trauma and beginning to heal. Contact us today to schedule an appointment!

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