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4 min read

The Neurobiology of Trauma: How Our Brains Get "Stuck" in Time

Key Takeaways:

  • The definition of trauma is different for everyone, and depends on your current relationships, your past, your values, and more.
  • When the brain undergoes trauma, it kicks into fight-or-flight mode, which helps you navigate your way out of the situation as safely as possible.
  • Sometimes, the brain system responsible for shutting off the fight-or-flight response fails to kick in, leading to the long-term affects of trauma.

It's a pretty intuitive and logical chain of events: Someone undergoes a traumatic experience, which affects their trust, character, memory, and mental health. Down the line, that trauma can cause distress and mental health conditions.

That makes sense until you start to think about the range of experiences that people have and the varied responses that occur. Some people go through something that's certainly traumatic but may not seem to warrant the classic trauma response. Others go through pain usually only seen in horror movies, but seem to do okay mentally after the fact.

There is, then, no clear rhyme or reason why some experiences cause long lasting trauma and some don't, or why some people appear to be more resilient to trauma than others.

The only way we can start to make sense of this unique facet of human psychology is to open the schematics: to explore and analyze the way the human brain works.

A quick note before we get started: If you have experienced trauma, your first step should be to reach out to a healthcare professional. They will be able to recommend safe, usually effective, and evidence-based treatment plans.

Explore trauma neurobiology below:

What defines trauma?

Why does trauma cause mental health concerns?

Professional Treatment for Trauma in Austin: Williamsburg Therapy Group

What defines trauma?

When we try to define concepts like trauma, we often find that the dictionary definition is inadequate in really explaining what the concept means.

Take the definition of trauma, for example: a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. Well, yeah, that's true - but it doesn't really explain the relationship between trauma and other dangerous or threatening events that don't affect us the same way that trauma does. Trauma has a very intimate and personal aspect that a simple definition can't really illuminate.

So, what actually is trauma?

The reality is that trauma is different for everyone. Your past experiences, genetics, family life, love life, social life, values, principles, self-image, and a million other characteristics come together to establish what is traumatic for you and what is not.

If you experience something that challenges, violates, or destroys any of these characteristics, it may be defined as trauma.

Why does trauma cause mental health concerns?

Trauma can cause mental health concerns because it causes our brains to be "stuck."

Here's a rundown of, generally, how trauma contributes to mental health conditions in the near and long term. Note that while this explanation represents what we know about trauma, there is still much to be studied. The process has also been simplified for the sake of readability.

Step One: The Trauma Happens

There are many types of trauma. A traumatic event can be something as seemingly innocuous as a bad date, or something so horrific that it makes headlines, like a natural disaster. One kind of trauma is not more valid than any other, and everyone has a different threshold for what is and what isn't trauma.

The process of a trauma response in the brain starts with which kind of trauma one undergoes and when. For example, a child who undergoes sexual trauma will likely have a different set of complications related to said trauma than, for example, an adult who gets assaulted and stolen from by a criminal.

When the traumatic event starts, the brain reacts in a logical and effective way, which has evolved over millions of years to help keep us safe.

Step Two: The Brain Reacts

When you undergo trauma, your brain must react in an instant. It runs millions of calculations and uses the results to determine how you will behave in the situation.

This reaction to trauma is often called the "fight or flight" response, but note that fighting and fleeing are not the only responses one can have to trauma. Some people may freeze up, pass out, or even try to ameliorate the situation and appease their attacker.

These calculations and the subsequent response are managed by the amygdala, or the part of the brain responsible for processing the sensation of fear.

The bottom line is this: Danger occurs, and your amygdala lights up, ready to use a variety of psychological and physical processes to get you out of it.

While this process doesn't feel good, it's certainly important. If we never felt fear or detected danger, we would have all been eaten by sabre-tooth tigers thousands of years ago. Only with the amygdala can we survive in a world that is often dangerous.

The problems arise when the human brain fails to pull you out of fight-or-flight mode.

Step Three: The Parasympathetic Nervous System

Normally, after the danger has passed and the traumatic event is over, the brain understands that it can now calm itself down and begin the recovery process.

It does this using its parasympathetic nervous system: a collection of brain processes, neurotransmitters, and glands that work together to reduce your heartbeat, give the order for the adrenal glands to stop producing adrenaline, and tell your amygdala that the danger is gone.

After experiences of extreme distress, trauma, or danger, however, the parasympathetic nervous system can sometimes fail to kick into action. This means your brain stays in fight-or-flight mode indefinitely, leading to mental health conditions like anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression.

This is the neurobiology of trauma. It can lead to a number of long-lasting and often debilitating effects, including:

  • Poor memory
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Panic attacks
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Trouble with relationships or trust

If you have undergone a traumatic experience, the absolute best thing you can do is talk to a mental health professional. Trauma and its effects often last for life, but the distress, conditions, and debilitation they cause can be improved with the right treatment. Talk therapy and medication have been shown to benefit those who have experienced trauma.

Professional Treatment for Trauma in Austin: Williamsburg Therapy Group

If you have been through trauma and think you may need treatment, it's important to reach out as soon as possible.

Our team of trauma therapists in Austin is composed exclusively of doctoral-level psychologists who maintain unrivaled standards of expertise and availability.

If you're looking for an elevated therapy experience, don't hesitate to give us a call. Our patient coordinator will work to find the right therapist for you. Feeling better may be closer than you think.

Book a Therapy Session in Austin Today

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