The Impact of Trauma on the Brain and How Therapy Helps with Healing

The Impact of Trauma on the Brain and How Therapy Helps with Healing

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The Coalition for National Trauma Research recently published research on the impact of trauma. The non-profit found that trauma and trauma-related disorders cost the US economy nearly $700 billion annually.

Yet this figure only accounts for the short-term costs of trauma. It does not consider the long-term impacts of trauma. Trauma can alter the way the brain functions, especially when it occurs during childhood.

There is good news. Mental health practitioners have come up with therapeutic treatments for trauma. Therapy may not cure trauma-related disorders, but it can help you manage your symptoms.

In this guide, we want to help you understand how trauma can impact your body and brain. We will also describe how therapy can help you reclaim your life. Keep reading to learn more.

What is Trauma?

The colloquial definition of trauma is an extremely stressful or disturbing experience. In the mental health field, undergoing a stressful experience is not always the same thing as trauma.

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines trauma as an emotional response to a terrible event. A terrible event could be witnessing or experiencing an accident, rape, or even a natural disaster.

When many people think of trauma, they think of veterans. Veterans experience a higher rate of trauma-related disorders than the general population. This has led the VA to come up with its own definition of trauma.

Individuals in the military are often exposed to military sexual trauma (MST), mass violence, and other types of war-related traumatic events. Exposure to these events can justify a trauma disorder diagnosis, according to the VA.

Yet, trauma doesn't only result from one-time events in the military. It can also happen due to multiple or long-lasting traumatic events, such as ongoing abuse or trafficking. This is known as complex trauma.

Complex trauma is not yet recognized in the DSM. However, studies have found that over 3% of people in the US have experienced complex trauma. Causes of complex trauma include chronic abuse and neglect.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) presents another definition of trauma. According to the DSM 5, trauma involves a stressful event. It defines a stressful event in the following ways:

  • Actual or threatened death
  • Actual or threatened serious injury
  • Actual or threatened sexual violence

Everyone experiences stressful situations differently. However, to receive a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (more on this condition later), you must meet the criteria the DSM sets out.

The Short-Term Impact of Trauma on the Body

Short-term responses to trauma evolved as a way to help humans protect themselves from danger. They activate a region of the brain called the amygdala. Among other functions, the amygdala regulates the SNS.

The SNS is the sympathetic nervous system. One of its primary roles is to activate our fight or flight system in response to threats. The fight or flight response is responsible for many of the short-term effects trauma causes.

For example, the fight or flight response causes an increase in breathing and heart rate to prepare for flight. It also redirects blood from the rest of the body to the lungs, the heart, the brain, and other vital organs.

Other symptoms of SNS activation include:

  • Dilated pupils
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Muscle tensing
  • Increased strength
  • Increased energy

The goal of these responses is to prepare the body for, you guessed it, fight or flight. This response is crucial for surviving acute, one-time trauma. But in the long run and in complex trauma, it can become maladaptive.

The Short-Term Impact of Trauma on the Brain

Trauma impacts the brain through its effects on hormones. We call hormones that live in the brain neurotransmitters (NTs). In addition to the above, the amygdala activates the release of two NTs during trauma:

  1. Epinephrine
  2. Cortisol

You may know epinephrine by another name: adrenaline. Most people think of adrenaline as what powers them through an intense workout or nerve-racking job interview.

However, this NT's main function is to enable communication between brain cells. It is also the hormone responsible for activating the physical aspects of fight or flight we mentioned above.

Cortisol does something different. When the brain releases it, cortisol directly reduces the concentration of insulin in the bloodstream. Insulin absorbs extra glucose, and our bodies use glucose as energy.

So if cortisol reduces insulin, it indirectly causes an increase in glucose. Glucose is then available for the body, particularly the muscles, to use as energy. The brain also uses glucose to increase focus and attention.

The Long-Term Impact of Trauma on the Brain

Some people develop trauma disorders after experiencing only one stressful experience. For others, it takes many traumatic events before problems start to arise. The difference comes down to individual brain chemistry.

Experiencing many traumas increases someone's risk of developing a mental health disorder. The reason for this has to do with the HPA axis. HPA stands for three brain regions: the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands.

Remember when we mentioned that the brain excretes adrenaline and cortisol in response to stress? It begins in the HPA axis. A healthy HPA axis is crucial for a healthy stress response, but the reverse is also true.

People with PTSD and other trauma-related disorders tend to have dysfunctional HPA axes. More specifically, these individuals have unresponsive cortisol receptors, also known as glucocorticoid receptors.

This phenomenon is known as glucocorticoid resistance. The primary effect of glucocorticoid resistance is an increase in cortisol. Increased cortisol causes the stress response to activate all over again.

Glucocorticoid resistance explains many of the mental symptoms of stress, including:

  • Irritability
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Nervousness
  • Fear
  • Racing thoughts
  • Anhedonism (i.e., inability to enjoy things)
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Emotional dysregulation

That's not all, though. These changes to the brain can result in physical symptoms, too. We will talk about these symptoms next.

The Long-Term Impact of Trauma on the Body

Research shows a significant link between chronic illnesses and trauma. Sadly, chronic illnesses are the leading cause of death in the US. They include heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

Additionally, an unhealthy HPA axis response can increase someone's risk for:

  • Immune system dysfunction
  • Obesity
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Musculoskeletal problems
  • Respiratory complaints
  • Dermatological disorders (e.g., acne, alopecia, dermatitis, etc.)
  • Urological dysfunction

Many of these symptoms come about due to elevated cortisol levels in some people who experience trauma. Elevated cortisol levels have indications for your mental health.

Does Trauma Cause Mental Health Disorders?

Yes, trauma is connected to mental health disorders. In many conditions, experiencing trauma can trigger symptoms of the disorder. Some conditions have a more direct link to trauma.

This includes trauma and stress-related disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Trauma and Stress-Related Disorders

People with PTSD often experience symptoms like recurrent intrusive memories, flashbacks, and dreams related to the event.

Avoidance, cognitive and mood disturbances, and hypervigilance are also common in individuals with this disorder. To receive a diagnosis, someone must have symptoms for at least one month and experience impaired functioning.

The DSM recognizes four added trauma and stress-related conditions:

  1. Disinhibited social engagement disorder
  2. Reactive attachment disorder
  3. Acute stress disorder
  4. Adjustment disorder

Professionals diagnose reactive attachment disorder and disinhibited social engagement disorder in children. These conditions typically occur due to childhood neglect.

Acute stress disorder features a short-term reaction to trauma. It lasts at least three days. If they do not subside after a week or so, the professional may diagnose the individual with PTSD.

Adjustment disorder is a mild kind of PTSD. This condition can happen in response to stressful situations that the DSM 5 may not consider traumatic. People who experience this disorder may be significantly impaired.

Anxiety and Mood Disorders

Trauma does not only alter HPA axis function in the brain. It also impacts the amygdala and hippocampus. As you may recall, the amygdala helps regulate emotions; the hippocampus plays a role in learning and memory.

Changes to the amygdala often lead to anxiety disorders. There are five major types of anxiety disorders. They are generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and phobias.

These anxiety disorders manifest in different ways. But they all share symptoms like excessive worry, restlessness, irritability, and trouble focusing. These symptoms align with those of an unhealthy HPA axis response.

The hippocampus and amygdala work closely together to regulate emotions. But hippocampal changes due to trauma are more tied to mood disorders. Mood disorders include depression, bipolar disorder, and more.

Childhood trauma, in particular, can increase the risk of these disorders. As many as 50% of people with mood disorders report a traumatic childhood experience. It is even more common in men and boys.

Substance Use Disorders

Another area of the brain altered by trauma is the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the primary source of our intelligence. It filters the thoughts, actions, and emotions created in other areas of the brain.

But one of the main roles of the prefrontal cortex is to inhibit impulses. Children who do not have fully mature prefrontal cortexes are more impulsive in their decisions. The same is true of people with trauma.

One of the results of lowered inhibitions is an increased likelihood of using substances. For example, a study looked at the substance use habits of 587 people who reported experiencing childhood trauma.

The researchers found that 44.8% qualified for cannabis use disorder, 39% of the group relied on alcohol, and 34.1% had cocaine dependencies. The more severe the trauma, the higher the level of substance abuse.

Experts have theorized about why substance use is so prevalent in people who have experienced trauma. One theory is that people start using substances to deal with their symptoms.

For example, alcohol and cannabis are both substances of choice for people with PTSD. These substances are central nervous system depressants. People with PTSD may use these substances to counteract their anxiety symptoms.

Unfortunately, self-medicating with addictive substances can do more harm than good. That is why it is critical for people experiencing the symptoms of trauma to seek treatment.

How Trauma Therapy Can Help

Trauma therapy is the first line of defense against the symptoms of conditions like PTSD. People who do not respond to this type of trauma treatment may require medical intervention.

However, there are many types of trauma therapies out there to try. Experts have the most evidence for the following types of trauma treatments:

  • Eye Movement, Desensitization, and Restructuring (EMDR)
  • Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)
  • Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE)
  • Somatic Experiencing (SE)
  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

These trauma therapies can teach patients to reprocess traumatic memories. The goal is to remove the emotional reaction to the trauma. This can help ease many of the symptoms of trauma exposure.

People suffering from co-occurring disorders should seek out additional forms of therapy. CBT can be helpful for people with mood and anxiety disorders. An addiction treatment program is ideal for co-occurring substance use disorders.

A therapist may also recommend certain lifestyle changes. Eating healthier, getting plenty of physical activity, and improving your sleep habits can help you manage your symptoms.

There is no cure for trauma and stress-related disorders. But with the help of a professional therapist, you can undergo emotional healing and reclaim your life. That's where Embark Recovery comes in.

Do You Need Treatment for Trauma in Arizona?

Trauma can change the way you think and feel. The impact of trauma has implications for not only your physical health but also your mental well-being. Luckily, there are safe and effective trauma therapies that can help.

Are you experiencing negative changes in your life because of your trauma symptoms? Embark Recovery in Prescott, AZ can help you get back on track. Contact Embark Recovery today to learn more about our programs.

Begin your road to recovery