The Impact of Trauma on Brain Function

The human brain truly is amazing. Imagine your brain as Mother Nature’s supercomputer. It’s designed to process vast amounts of information, regulate emotions, and control bodily functions with incredible precision.

But what happens when this finely tuned machine encounters trauma? Trauma’s impact on the brain can drastically alter how the brain works and disrupt its natural harmony and normal function. 

Brain Injury from Trauma

Unfortunately, the effects of trauma on brain function are not insignificant. Trauma can significantly impact a person’s ability to process information, regulate emotions, and control their behavior. It can also alter memory formation and storage, cognitive functions, and delay prefrontal lobe development, which is responsible for logical thinking, problem-solving, and cause-and-effect thinking. 

This is particularly problematic for children. The younger they are when the trauma happens, the more significant the damage will likely be. Developmental trauma, otherwise known as significant or chronic trauma that happens during early childhood, doesn’t just affect kids while they’re little. It can leave physical, emotional, and cognitive scars that can last a lifetime. Additionally, if a child is also prenatally exposed to alcohol or other substances, the impact of trauma will be even more significant as both trauma and alcohol can cause permanent long-term brain damage.

The brain is a superhighway

In order to truly understand the effects of trauma on brain function, we first need to understand how the brain is supposed to work. The brain is designed to work like an information superhighway. Information travels in and out of processing centers called synapses in a smooth, streamlined way. Those information carriers are specialized nerve cells called neurons. Neurons gather information from the environment and from the rest of the body, transfer it to the brain for processing, and then send that information where it needs to go to make the body do what it’s supposed to do. 

The network of channels information moves through are called neural pathways.  The synapses are the junction points between the neurons. These synapses are the transfer stations or control centers. Their job is to relay the information that comes to them to the next appropriate neuron for processing and transmission.

The brain forms early and grows quickly!

The brain begins forming very quickly after conception and grows at an incredible pace. Brain cells begin forming within three weeks of conception. Its physical shape and structure that last throughout one’s life are in place just seven weeks after conception. During the prenatal period, there are times when close to 250,000 neurons are added to the brain every single minute. That’s some seriously fast development! 

Kids’ brains are like sponges. They soak up everything around them, both for better and for worse. During the early years, children learn at a tremendously fast pace. The neural pathways that are laid during this time become the foundation for learning and thinking for the rest of their life.

The time between conception and about three years old is critical for proper brain development. What the child is exposed to and what they experience during this time sticks for life. Positive experiences and connections during infancy and early childhood have a huge impact on a child’s ability to learn. They also boost that child’s chances for achievement, success, happiness, and being able to create and sustain healthy and fulfilling relationships throughout the rest of their life.

Because kids’ brains grow so quickly, they are also particularly susceptible to damage. Children are especially sensitive and vulnerable to the negative and traumatic experiences that happen directly to them or even than they are vicariously exposed to or witness. The younger they are when those things occur, the greater the risk there is for long-term damage.

What goes in gets hardwired!

Remember, what goes into the brain is what gets hardwired. When a child experiences trauma during their early years, it significantly changes the way the brain develops. Instead of brain development happening smoothly and systematically, everything becomes a jumbled, tangled mess. Some connections are there, others are missing, others end up in the wrong place, and developmental milestones are often missed along the way. 

Kids aren’t the only ones affected, though. Trauma can impact anyone of any age. Trauma exposure at any stage of life will skew thinking, alter memory formation processes, and disrupt belief systems, behavior, and even nervous system function. Generally speaking, though, it lasts longer and is harder to correct when it happens to kids than to adults…unless the adults were also exposed as kids and the trauma was either never recognized or processed.  

Those who experience trauma don’t think the same way we do!

Many people, especially kids who experienced significant trauma (whether overt and obvious or covert and hidden) during their early years of life don’t think the same way others do. They don’t perceive the world the same way we do. They don’t understand things the same way we do. They often don’t even have any frame of reference to understand very simple and very common things that make perfect sense to the rest of the world.

Not all of them know it, either. If you’re one of those individuals who struggled in school and had a hard time making friends or connecting with other kids, trauma might be the culprit. The long-term effects of trauma on brain function will show up in behavior, academics, relationships, and one’s ability to form healthy attachments to other people. It will also affect language skills, belief systems, and their ability to learn and apply information.

Especially when trauma has impaired brain function in kids, it might look like hyperactivity, aggression, and constant over-the-top negative behaviors that are repeated over and over again. As those kids grow up and become adults, it may look like frequent risky or reckless behavior, substance abuse and “self-medication”, intolerance of boundaries, rules, or authority, and an inability to form or sustain healthy relationships with anyone, especially romantic partners.

Brain Function Most Affected by Trauma

Two parts of the brain are particularly affected by trauma. One is the frontal lobe (or prefrontal cortex) and the other is the limbic system. The prefrontal lobe is the largest section of the brain above the eyes, and the limbic system is the middle part of the brain represented below in pink.

human brain drawing cleaned up

Limbic System Function

Understanding trauma’s impact on the limbic system is crucial for developing strategies to calm this hyperactive alarm system and promote healing.

The limbic system is the emotional epicenter of our brain. It’s responsible for regulating emotions, memory, and our responses to stress. Think of it as the brain’s alarm system that is constantly scanning the environment for threats. When a threat is detected, it will automatically trigger a survival response. 

Key components of the limbic system include the amygdala, hippocampus, and hypothalamus. The amygdala processes emotions and signals danger, the hippocampus manages memory formation and retrieval, and the hypothalamus regulates bodily functions like hunger, thirst, and sleep.

When trauma occurs, this delicate system can become hyperactive and dysregulated. The amygdala may become over-sensitive, leading to heightened anxiety and an exaggerated fear response. This is often known as the “fight or flight” response and gets stuck in “crisis” mode where everything looks and feels like an emergency. It might show up as extreme hypervigilance or always scanning their environment to make sure we’re safe. Or, depending on how the potential threat is perceived, it might become “flop and freeze”, which looks more like the “deer in the headlights” response of silent panic or simply giving up when things are even a little bit hard or don’t go our way.

The hippocampus might struggle with memory processing, resulting in fragmented or intrusive memories of the traumatic event. When a traumatic experience is too overwhelming to fully process, the memories surrounding it don’t get properly stored or processed. They become like little shards of glass in the brain that poke and scratch at everything else. Trauma memories also aren’t subject to normal recall and processing and they are rarely ever complete. However, they are still very real and terrifying to the person experiencing them, especially if they don’t have any conscious context around them.

Meanwhile, the hypothalamus can become overtaxed, disrupting sleep patterns, appetite, and hormone production. Depending on what messages are being sent…and remember that these are broken messages being sent through a broken system…we might see over or underproduction and functioning in any or all of these areas. This disruption can leave individuals feeling constantly on edge and overwhelmed by emotional and physical reactions that seem out of their control. 

Prefrontal Cortex Function

The prefrontal cortex is the brain’s executive or “thinking” center. It’s responsible for higher-level cognitive functions such as decision-making, problem-solving, impulse control, and emotional regulation. It’s also the part of our brain that helps us plan for the future, make thoughtful decisions, and behave in socially appropriate ways. In essence, the prefrontal cortex allows us to navigate the world around us and respond to challenges with rationality and foresight.

However, trauma can significantly impair the functioning of the prefrontal cortex. When we experience trauma, especially chronic or severe trauma, the brain’s resources are diverted to immediate survival, often sidelining the prefrontal cortex. This can lead to difficulties in concentration, impulse control problems, and poor decision-making. The ability to regulate emotions can also be compromised, resulting in heightened sensitivity to stress and difficulty managing emotional reactions. Over time, this can create a feedback loop where the prefrontal cortex becomes less effective at moderating the overactive limbic system and creates a state of heightened anxiety and reactivity.

The prefrontal cortex is also one of the most easily damaged parts of the brain, both by injury and by substance exposure (especially alcohol.) Even in a healthy, normally functioning human, this is the last part of the brain to fully mature and doesn’t reach its full capacity until a person is in their mid-twenties. Have you ever wondered why young male drivers are so expensive to insure? This is why! When this area is damaged by trauma and/or substance exposure, that development process can be stalled either permanently or by many, many years.

Brain Function Impairments Aren’t a Choice!

As we look at all the many ways that trauma can negatively impact brain function, and especially as we live with them in real life, it is so important to remember that none of this is the result of a conscious choice. Those affected didn’t choose what happened to them. They didn’t ask for it to happen, and it wasn’t their fault that it happened.  

Likewise, they can’t simply make a different choice to fix what’s wrong. In many cases, the altered brain function is so significant that don’t even know anything is wrong. Their way of thinking, feeling, and functioning is their normal, and in many cases, it’s all they’ve ever known and they don’t understand or see the need ro anything to change. 

Living with someone who has been affected by trauma-induced brain injuries isn’t always easy. It can try everyone’s patience and ability to cope. Please remember, though, that it’s all about very real brain damage from trauma. They aren’t doing what they do to purposely torment you. They aren’t consciously choosing to be rebellious or make poor choices. They’re just trying to survive in a world that doesn’t make sense to them and that doesn’t understand them.

They Are Not Without Hope! 

Tragic as impaired brain function can be, it’s important to remember that no one is without hope. Trauma can heal and brains can be rebuilt. They can be rewired, new neural pathways can be built, and brain function can improve. This isn’t just wishful thinking or blind hope. It’s neuroscience!

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s incredible ability to reorganize and adapt by forming new neural connections throughout life. This adaptability allows the brain to compensate for injuries, adjust to new situations, and recover from traumatic experiences. Essentially, neuroplasticity is the brain’s way of rewiring itself, offering a powerful pathway for healing and restoration. When we understand that our brain is not a fixed, immutable structure but a dynamic, evolving system, we open the door to profound possibilities for recovery and growth.

Of course, The earlier that intervention can happen, the easier it will be to rewire things. However, it can still happen at any age, especially if the person is willing to work at it. The right interventions can harness the power of neuroplasticity to heal and restore brain function after trauma. Consistent interventions can promote neural healing and resilience. Mindfulness and meditation help calm the overactive limbic system and strengthen the prefrontal cortex, enhancing emotional regulation and decision-making. Additionally, lifestyle factors like regular physical exercise, a healthy diet, and adequate sleep support overall brain health and neuroplasticity. By engaging in these interventions, individuals can foster a more resilient and adaptable brain, paving the way for meaningful recovery and improved mental health.

Start Your Trauma Healing Journey!

  • Learn what trauma really is and recognize it an injury that can heal,
  • Explore the various (and often hidden) forms of trauma
  • Understand how trauma impacts the brain, nervous system, and body
  • Discover the relationship between stress and trauma
  • Identify the next right steps for your trauma recovery process

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