Traumatic events or experiences can affect people emotionally for a long time. Their impacts on the human psyche and mental health cannot be understated. People who live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may struggle with panic attacks, depression, and even suicidal thoughts. Understanding how trauma affects your mental health and the best ways to cope with its aftermath helps you heal.
How Does Trauma Change the Brain?
Traumatic experiences like natural disasters, violence, abuse, and fatal accidents can leave people reeling in shock, terror, and mental confusion. Even when these negative emotions get suppressed or delayed, their mind is forever changed. For example, survivors of abuse may experience emotional numbness, self-hate, anxiety, depression, and trouble sleeping. These are symptoms of trauma that has disturbed the normal functioning of the brain.
Your brain tries to keep you safe. It stores up memories so you can learn from the past and make the best decisions for future situations. When you experience trauma, your brain works overtime to keep you safe. It becomes overloaded with negative flashbacks of the past, warning you of danger even long after the fact and causing you to react more severely than the current situation necessitates. This ultra-reactivity shows that, in response to a past event you didn’t have control over, your brain’s emotional regulation heightens to crisis mode in any scenario that feels similar to that event.
During traumatic experiences, your brain shuts down all nonessential systems and activates the nervous system and the mammalian part of the brain, which helps you process emotions like fear. To help you survive trauma, your brain releases stress hormones and activates what is known as the “fight or flight” response. As the threat passes, the parasympathetic nervous system remains reactivated, trapping your brain in “survival mode.”
Traumatic stress has an intense emotional aspect because it changes the brain’s chemical balance. It activates the amygdala, a part of the brain that helps you process and regulate emotions. This is why memories of traumatic events may manifest as nightmares and flashbacks, each time triggering an over-reactive response from the amygdala. Emotion-driven thoughts can become so intrusive that they disrupt your sleep.
How Do These Brain Changes Impact Behaviors?
An over-reactive amygdala makes it difficult for your brain to distinguish between a current threat and a past threat. It responds as if you were re-experiencing the original trauma. This causes you to be on high alert all the time, showing emotional disturbance and irritability in your behaviors. Untreated traumatic stress may cause chronic stress, leading to many mental health risks.
Because traumatic stress is also found to decrease the volume of the hippocampus and the function of the prefrontal cortex, it may create difficulties in your behaviors such as logical thinking or regulation of fearful emotions. Untreated traumatic stress may lead to high levels of stress hormones, coupled with an over-reactive amygdala, a shrunken hippocampus, and a less functional prefrontal cortex. These changes translate into cognitive-behavioral changes such as insomnia, panic attacks, poor concentration, learning difficulties, and poor decision-making.
How Do You Rewire a Traumatized Brain?
Traumatic stress can be alleviated but it does not completely disappear. If lingering symptoms become debilitating, consider seeking professional help from trauma-informed therapists and mental health specialists. The good news about your brain is that neuroplasticity can work to your benefit. There are tried-and-true methods to help destress a traumatized brain.
People living with traumatic stress need a strong support system led by therapists who use a trauma-informed approach. A good therapist will help you separate the strings and connect your current behaviors to your past experiences in an easy-to-understand way. You will develop more self-awareness and learn how to cope with symptoms of PTSD to avoid retraumatization.
Can You Recover From Trauma Without Therapy?
There are natural ways to heal from trauma, and you need to be intentional about using them. Self-care is of primary importance. Good nutrition, rest, and physical activities can help alleviate stress and allow you to live a healthy life, even while dealing with PTSD. You should also seek other coping strategies such as art, music, meditation, and other activities that can help balance your mood.
Leaning on your loved ones and sharing your feelings with them can be an alternative to psychotherapy. If you feel ready to discuss the traumatic event, you can ask your loved one to listen and support you. It takes time to go from avoiding mentioning the event to being fully transparent about it. Although avoidance is normal, it can prolong your stress and keep you from healing. Once you begin to talk about trauma with supportive family members and friends, healing can begin.
Do you or a loved one struggle with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? These may include panic attacks, depression, or even suicidal thoughts. Traumatic experiences like natural disasters, violence, abuse, and other fatal accidents can leave you reeling in shock, terror, and mental confusion. Disorders resulting from traumatic events are unique in that they stem from one event or repeated similar events but affect you long past the moment or moments of traumatization. Trauma can have significant impacts on your brain that often require professional intervention to heal, and may lead to substance use disorder as a way to cope with the lasting effects of trauma. At Laguna Shores Recovery, we know how to help you heal from substance use with a trauma-informed approach to treatment. Our full medical residential facility offers a range of treatments, including diagnosis, behavioral therapies, and 12-step programs. You do not need to struggle alone; help is here. Call us at (866) 906-3203.