How Does Trauma Affect the Brain?

July 14, 2016 Jami DeLoe

Have you ever wondered how trauma affects the brain? It's something that I thought about a lot after being diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I wanted (needed) to know that there was a physical reason I wasn't able to let go of the trauma, to just "get over it," like other people have done. The fact is, trauma affects the brain and some of us who suffer trauma and develop PTSD do so because our brains process trauma differently than others.

When we experience trauma, our bodies and our brains change. The brain records every sensory detail about the event, and those memories can be reactivated repeatedly. For most people this causes mood swings and disruptive dreams that diminish over time. But for those of us who develop PTSD, those symptoms worsen over time and become intrusive in our daily lives.

How the Brain Responds to Trauma

Scientists have discovered that the brain is made up of three parts: the reptilian, the mammalian, and the neomammalian. Each of these play a part in our response to trauma.

The reptilian (brain stem) part controls our survival instincts. During a traumatic experience, this part of the brain goes into reactive mode. All non-essential processes are turned off, and we go into survival mode.

The mammalian (midbrain, limbic) part of our brain processes emotions and learning, and is unique to mammals. It does not register concepts of time or logic and it evaluates everything as agreeable (pleasurable) or disagreeable (pain/distress). Survival is based on the avoidance of pain, and the repetition of pleasure.

The amygdala is located in the limbic part of our brain, and it Trauma affects the brain differently in people who develop PTSD. But don't worry, recovery happens. Learn how PTSD sufferers' brains work when facing trauma. plays a part in how we process trauma. The amygdala acts as a filter, it scans the threat our reptilian brain has reacted to and decides whether or not there is a real threat. If there is not, then it allows access to the neocortex. If it signals that there is danger, then the other parts of the brain become active (specifically the thalamus, which is also in the limbic brain), and it incites one of three alarm responses in the reptilian brain: fight, flight, or freeze (Using Mindfulness in PTSD Recovery) The body then responds to the instructions of the brain.

In normal situations, when the threat has passed, the nervous system shifts the body back into its regular status by reducing stress hormones and allowing the brain to return to its normal function. However, in trauma survivors who go on to develop PTSD, the shift from reactive back to responsive doesn't happen. Instead, the reptilian brain keeps the survivor in a reactive state.

The traumatic event is never allowed access to the neomammalian brain (neocortex), which is the part of the brain that controls cognitive processing, decision-making, memory, and self-awareness. It is the part of the brain that allows us to process traumatic situations and allows us to heal. Instead, the event is held in the limbic brain, the amygdala stays in an overstimulated state, and the trauma survivor remains in a loop of constant arousal, looking for and perceiving threats everywhere.

Because the memory of the event is held in the limbic brain, which doesn't have a concept of time, events that happened 20 years ago can seem like they are happening in the present. That is why PTSD sufferers can seem like they are stuck in the past and they relive the trauma through flashbacks and nightmares.

How Does Healing Happen in the Traumatized Brain?

This all seems very complicated, at least it did to me. The good news is, you don't have to know all of the ins and outs of how the brain works to understand that as victims of trauma who have developed PTSD, our brains process (or fail to process, really) trauma differently than those who don't have PTSD, and that healing is possible (Neuroplasticity: What you Need to Know in PTSD). These two things give me great comfort when I am triggered and experiencing PTSD symptoms.

Healing in the traumatized brain happens through committing to a process of trying different treatment options designed to get the three parts of the brain to work together. Not everyone with PTSD will respond the same to specific treatments, there isn't a one-size-fits-all fix. But, in working with a therapist who understands PTSD, it is possible to decrease the effects of your trauma, and even eliminate the PTSD symptoms you are experiencing.

Find Jami on Facebook, on Twitter, on Google+, and on her blog, Sober Grace.

APA Reference
DeLoe, J. (2016, July 14). How Does Trauma Affect the Brain?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 14 from

Author: Jami DeLoe

Jami DeLoe is a freelance writer and addiction blogger. She is an advocate for mental health awareness and addiction recovery and is a recovering alcoholic herself. Find Jami DeLoe on her blog, Sober GraceTwitter, and Facebook.

September, 4 2016 at 6:00 pm

I am applying for Workmen's Compensation for the intentional infliction of emotional injury. I went to the opposition's psychiatrist for an evaluation. It only lasted 10 minutes. He asked me about dates and specific names of multiple generic medications to which I answered that I did not know. He raised his voice, slammed shut his notebook, stood up and said okay we are done. I was accused of lying, withholding information. This interaction triggered me as I began shaking and when I came home, I laid on the bed only to wake up 30 hours later. His report stated that I did not have PTSD. Beware of "Guns for Hire".

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Mary Ellen Belding
September, 4 2017 at 11:14 am

I also had the same treatment, however it was from the WC Judge. Not only did they abuse me in the hearing, unrepresented, they changed the verbatim transcripts & then covered it up. When I exposed it, they had me arrested for trespassing in a public building attempting to get a copy of the transcripts. Never Go to a State Agency to get help, when they are the ones that have committed the wrong doing.

Dr Musli Ferati
July, 29 2016 at 11:44 pm

Excellent and instructive article on psycho-physiology of our brain how it manage and processing traumatic experiences. Indeed the brain exhibits supersophisticated part of our body that scan, elaborate and at least manage traumatic events that risk and threatening our global welfare. So, it is of great importance to know the mechanism and complex work- out of our brain, in order to overcome the shuddering consequences of life traumas, as unavoidable emotional experiences. Your explicit and clear explanation of pathomorphology of trauma insult should be the opportunity way how to prevent bad and dangerous outcomes of life-threatening events. By your and last one neuroscience achievements, cerebral cortex is the main site of our conscience, which one can soften and diminish eventual psycho-traumas by feet-back massages and impulses. The man as cortical creature, has got the privilege and ability to use the extraordinary potentials and possibilities of neomammalian brain to processing in due manner traumatic experiences, in order to prevent PTSD, as serious and long-lasting consequences of life mischances. Therefore, let's exploit our cognitive capacity and reason to explore in real way our role and place in traumatic events and afterward to overcome undesirable repercussions, as it is PTSD. The possibilities and probabilities are numerous and specific for each one, where up to date mental health care system is of primary significance.

July, 15 2016 at 2:26 pm

You are quite lucky to have a wonderful husband who doesn't take advantage of you because of what happened in the past. Hopefully a better father to your son.
You are right if it did not happen to other people it would be hard to understand your plight.
However, just remember you had the courage to do the right thing, had left him and kept your son.
Also that even if some to many people don't admit it they must have relived in their minds awful things that have happened that they simply cannot forget. Even if time has passed, it can happen again with specific triggers or even similar situations.
Hopefully, having support of family, friends, husband will help you reduce those traumatic feelings you just had or even still have right now, and help you get through the day.

July, 14 2016 at 12:13 pm

It's been 23 years since I left my abuser. For 12 years, after I left, he tortured me with a Battle of custody our son, I could not leave with a wife beater. I have since moved always moving further away from him. It's been years since I've seen him, I ran into him at the shopping center yesterday and he's smiling announces that he's moving down the street from me! I am so upset that I will not respond back to the day I left. I thought I had Heald so much! What a joke. And the hardest part is no one can understand it because they have never been through it. How do I stop the anxiety and fear? Logically I get, probably, won't hurt me again. But now I'm back to constantly looking over my shoulder riddled with anxiety! I just don't know what to do! I feel so trapped! And the sad part is I'm remarried 18 years was a wonderful wonderful man. And I'm back to that scared woman that left on Easter morning 23 years ago.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

July, 25 2016 at 10:37 pm

I so understand how you feel. Even though I won a 2 year injunction against my now ex he used that injunction against me. My story is so unbelievable I am writing a book. I found out my ex is planning to move back to the state and most likely to the same town I live in. Right now I have recently conquered my ptsd but I am deathly afraid of this man. My psychologist told me that who I was married to is a narcissist psychopath. My ex's 1st therapist figured out this man and that he was abusing me. Stay strong. Use mindfulness and stay in the present. You don't even have to be nice to your ex. Do not give him any leeway if he tries to harass or psychologically abuse you. Keep a diary. It is a MUST. The best you can do is show you are doing well and have a good life. That will bug the hell out of him. Don't give him the time of day and don't let him take residence in your mind. I wish you well!!!!

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