4 Ways Your Brain Responds to Trauma

brain trauma

Common reactions to trauma include fear, anxiety, physical symptoms of panic, shame, and flashbacks (reliving the painful experience). My clients find relief not only through knowing and being able to name their symptoms, but also when I tell them these symptoms are a result of your brain’s natural reaction to trauma. Experiencing trauma reactions are because of our neurobiological response rather than a character flaw!

It can feel like an uphill battle to control some of these trauma reactions, and here’s why: your brain is essentially hijacked. Here’s a simplified rundown of what’s going on after you experience trauma:

1. Trauma memory is “stuck”

Not processed like normal memories, trauma memories are left fragmented and unprocessed, making the memory feel as if it is happening in the present rather than the past.

2. Amygdala on high alert

Also known as the brain’s fear center, the amygdala helps to store memories in the form of emotions and physical sensations. The amygdala activates our stress hormones and becomes over active when we have been through single or multiple incident traumas. Think of constantly being in fight, flight, freeze mode—it’s as if the fire alarm in your brain is consistently telling you a fire is taking place.

3. Pre-frontal cortex goes offline

Ever wonder why it’s hard to make decisions or complete tasks when you’re paralyzed with fear? When we get in to fight, flight, or freeze mode due to the amygdala being in an over active state, our pre-frontal cortex goes to the back burner. Our pre-frontal cortex is responsible for rationalization, managing impulses and emotions, and planning responses (check out Helen’s post on grounding for ways to get that pre-frontal cortex operating).

4. Avoid, avoid, avoid

Obviously, it feels better to avoid disturbing memories. How else would you go to work, take care of your family, etc. However, this means the memory remains unprocessed and symptoms remain.

Without the knowledge of resources and tools to manage trauma reactions, it can feel like you’re spinning out of control. The good news is after processing through traumatic memories (in a safe therapeutic relationship) you can gain freedom from these symptoms and remember the event(s) with a lower level of distress. Read about how EMDR can help out with this process.

Authored by: Anna Zapata, LPC

Michael Primeaux