How Trauma Changes You
Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford’s testimony in front of the United States Senate is memorable for many reasons, but survivors of trauma will likely remember it for the haunting yet accurate statements she made on the effects of sexual assault on her life.
“I did my best to suppress memories of the assault because recounting the details caused me to relive the experience, and caused panic attacks and anxiety,” said Dr. Blasey-Ford. “I have had to relive my trauma in front of the entire world, and have seen my life picked apart by people … who have never met me or spoken with me.”
Dr. Blasey-Ford’s statement attests to the dramatic effects that trauma can have on a person. As she shared in her testimony, trauma affects our memory, can cause panic attacks and anxiety, and triggers intrusive memories or flashbacks at unexpected times.
While they are undoubtedly distressing for both the victim and their loved ones, these symptoms represent parts of the body’s natural response to trauma. The body’s instinctive response to trauma explains why some people cannot simply “move on” after a traumatic event.
You may think that the body’s trauma response only affects people under extreme circumstances, but the lasting effects of trauma are more common than you might think: 1 in 11 people will be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an extreme manifestation of the body’s trauma response, in their lifetime.
Trauma changes our body, mind, and spirit, sometimes rendering us unrecognizable from who we were before a traumatic event. After trauma, you may never be able to return to your previous self, but with the help of a trained therapist, you can grow through your trauma and learn to feel whole again.
Read on to discover how trauma alters us on both a physical and psychological level, including its far-reaching effects on memory, the body, personality, and more — as well as how victims can begin the difficult process of healing.
How Trauma Affects Survivors
Surviving a single traumatic event takes its toll on the mind, body, and spirit. The effects of surviving ongoing, long-term trauma, or complex trauma, can be even more detrimental; complex trauma can define our reality.
Reactions to trauma may be initial, occurring right after the trauma occurred, or delayed, occurring weeks, months, or sometimes years later. A wide range of reactions to trauma are considered normal, but they can be distressing to those who are living through the aftereffects of trauma.
Trauma affects the brain, body, and emotions in different ways. Some people will go on to develop PTSD and some people won’t, but almost everybody experiences some degree of the trauma response after a traumatic event. The degree to which you experience the trauma response depends on factors like your resiliency, your social supports, and your coping skills.
Usually, the trauma response resolves shortly after living through a traumatic event. Sometimes, however, the changes it makes to our brain, body, and emotions last a long time, resulting in prolonged symptoms of PTSD that can last months or years after surviving trauma. It’s important to acknowledge that these effects are not permanent and can be reversed with effective treatment by a qualified mental health professional.
To treat PTSD, patients must learn to effectively “unlearn” the effects trauma has on the brain, body, and emotions. This process can be lengthy and challenging but allows survivors to achieve a state known as post-traumatic growth, in which they are able to view the traumatic experience they survived as a source of strength in their lives.
The Effects of Trauma on the Brain
Trauma — especially trauma occurring in childhood, when the brain is not yet fully developed — affects three main areas of the brain. Those areas are the amygdala, which is responsible for safety and survival; the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), which helps us learn that previously threatening people or places are now safe; and the hippocampus, which controls learning and memory.
Trauma and the Amygdala
The amygdala is the brain’s center for processing and communicating fear. When the amygdala senses a threat, it triggers the fight-or-flight response, which creates a sense of anxiety and urgency in the face of danger.
After trauma, the amygdala is hypervigilant, meaning it may see threats everywhere. Situations that were previously seen as safe may trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response, leading to panic attacks and anxiety. This fight-or-flight response can occur in response to stimuli that consciously or unconsciously remind us of our trauma, or seemingly out of nowhere.
Trauma and the Medial Prefrontal Cortex
The mPFC regulates the activity of the amygdala. Under normal conditions, the amygdala communicates actively with the mPFC. The mPFC is responsible for learning that previously scary situations are actually safe (i.e. “conquering our fears”), and for mediating the amygdala’s response in these situations.
In people who have experienced trauma, the channel of communication between the mPFC and the amygdala is less active. As a result, the mPFC cannot regulate the fight-or-flight response. Trauma survivors may now perceive everyday situations that were not frightening to them before as a threat. This contributes to the feelings of hypervigilance and vulnerability experienced by trauma survivors.
Trauma and the Hippocampus
Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford is famous for saying that particular memories of her sexual assault were “indelible in the hippocampus.” It is not uncommon for trauma survivors to vividly remember some parts of what they experienced while completely forgetting others. Other times, memories become locked in the subconscious and may be recovered through unexpected flashbacks or nightmares. All of these effects are due to the role of the hippocampus in processing trauma and memory.
Normally, the hippocampus is responsible for learning and memory. In trauma survivors, the capacity for learning and memory may be diminished. One meta-analysis of studies performed on the brains of patients with PTSD showed that decreased hippocampal volume was a common finding among trauma survivors.
The hippocampus literally shrinks in response to trauma, meaning it stores some memories but not others. Unfortunately, some of the memories that may be lost after trauma include the memory of what is dangerous and what is safe. As a result, trauma survivors may broadly perceive the world as a dangerous and scary place.
The Effects of Trauma on the Body
Somatization refers to the tendency of our bodies to hold onto stress, resulting in physical symptoms such as muscle tension, migraines, stomach upset, and chronic fatigue. Similarly, the body, or “soma,” may store unprocessed trauma. Trauma survivors who have repressed memories of their trauma may not remember what they went through yet still experience physical pain related to the experience. The body remembers trauma, even if our brains do not.
An entire discipline of therapy has emerged that harnesses the power of the body in order to help patients let go of trauma. Dr. Peter Levine, a psychologist, pioneered the type of trauma therapy known as somatic experiencing. According to Dr. Levine’s theory, we are not always able to release the energy generated by the fight-or-fight response that is triggered by traumatic events. Instead, we may compress that energy in the body.
The problem is that by holding onto that energy, rather than releasing it, we are also holding onto the memory of our trauma. Our bodies communicate the pain and suffering of these stored memories through somatic symptoms like aches and pains. In somatic experiencing, trauma patients learn to reconnect with their bodily sensations, allowing them to combat the feelings of dissociation that are so common among trauma survivors and to notice the ways in which their bodies respond to thoughts and memories of a traumatic experience.
The Emotional Effects of Trauma
One of the most difficult effects of trauma for survivors and their families to deal with is emotional dysregulation. After a traumatic experience, we may lose the ability to control our emotional responses to stimuli, especially stimuli that remind us of the trauma. Sometimes, this can make trauma survivors a danger to themselves or others. Outbursts of rage, violence, self-harm, and suicidality are common phenomena among trauma survivors.
In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Bessel Van Der Klok recounts stories of traumatized veterans who responded to their trauma by engaging in gruesome acts of violence. When they were reminded of what they suffered in the war by some environmental stimuli — for example, a firework that reminded them of exploding shrapnel — they morphed into completely different men. One of Dr. Van Der Klok’s patients, when he was reminded of his wartime experiences, yelled at his wife and children and became so violent around them that he had to move into a motel to prevent himself from harming them while learning to manage his PTSD in therapy.
Emotional dysregulation is one of the most challenging symptoms for trauma survivors. Often, it alienates them from loved ones or prevents them from forming meaningful relationships in the first place. This has significant effects on the likelihood of recovery, as strong social support networks play a key role in developing our resilience.
Emotional regulation, the opposite of dysregulation, is an important coping skill that most of us are taught in childhood. However, many trauma survivors — especially those who experienced complex trauma in childhood — may have never had the opportunity to develop their emotional regulation skills. Building emotional regulation skills is, therefore, a critical step in the healing process for trauma survivors.
Healing From Trauma
If a traumatic event has changed the way you perceive yourself and the world around you, you are not alone. While the symptoms of PTSD are no doubt distressing, they result from changes to the body and brain that are by no means permanent.
Thanks to neuroplasticity, or the powerful ability of the brain to form new connections in response to changes in its environment over your lifetime, you can effectively “unlearn” the effects of trauma on your mind and body. Still, this can be an overwhelming task to undertake on your own.
Healing from trauma takes time and patience, as forcing yourself to delve too deeply into the memory of your trauma before you are ready can strengthen your traumatic memories and worsen flashbacks and nightmares. A trauma-informed therapist can help you progress through the healing process at a pace that feels right to you. They can provide you with the tools you need to remind yourself that you are safe while working through the aftermath of trauma.
If you’re ready to start the healing process, let the Meadowglade’s staff talk you through how we can help!