The Brain and Trauma

Our brain is shaped in three primary ways: temperament (inborn basic personality traits), genetics, and experience. Experiences of trauma, especially chronic childhood trauma, impacts how the brain develops and responds to threat in a number of ways. Our brain’s primary job is survival, and a brain that’s been through trauma is hypersensitive to threat.

When we are faced with danger and threat, our brain sends signals to our body to create a physical escape plan—fight, flight, or freeze. In the best case scenarios, we respond by escaping the danger. This allows our brains to stop sending those “danger signals” and our bodies to restore back internal peace. However, there are many circumstances where we don’t have a way to escape danger. Whether we are physically held down or locked away, have neglectful caregivers, or grow up in violent neighborhoods, there may be no way to fully escape our trauma. This means that our brains never stop sending “danger signals.”

If our brains are constantly telling us we are in danger, our bodies will respond like so—that’s how we are wired. Even if the threat has momentarily passed, we are prepared at any moment to engage in a fight-flight-freeze response. Eventually, constantly scanning the environment for threat becomes too much overwhelming for our brains to filter through. This leads to certain parts of the brain turning off as a way to cope, especially those involved in reason, logic, and having a sense of time. This may cause some people who have experienced trauma to engage in irrational behaviors, especially in their interpersonal relationships. It may also cause them to experience flashbacks, where they feel like they are reliving the trauma, because their brains are unable to stay in the present moment.

Thankfully, our brains are not immutable. Neuroplasticity involves our brains literally rewiring due to new experiences, such as counseling and supportive relationships. If you are struggling with a past trauma, know that hope and healing are possible.  If you are in the Chicagoland area and want to begin working through a trauma you’ve experienced, feel free to contact Olive Branch Counseling Associates, Inc. at 708-633-8000.

Written by Kathryn

2021 Graduate Intern

Resources: Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.

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