How Trauma Changes the Brain

Post-traumatic stress (PTS) looks different for each person it affects. There are a few symptoms that are known to be hallmarks, such as re-experiencing and hypervigilance, but not everyone experiences every symptom. Anyone who experiences a traumatic event may develop PTS. It’s simply the body’s normal reaction to an abnormal event. But PTS signals that changes have taken place in the brain to lead to those symptoms. 

There are three areas of the brain that typically change after experiencing trauma. They are the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex. The hippocampus is the area in the brain that deals with declarative memory. These are facts and events that can be recalled or, “declared.” Therefore it’s the area of the brain where memory of the traumatic event is stored. The amygdala is the part of the brain that activates the “fight or flight” response. And the prefrontal cortex is responsible for managing the amygdala and the hippocampus, as well as helping to control behaviors and emotions. It can also override the other two parts when necessary.

When trauma strikes, things go awry. Studies have concluded that trauma shrinks the hippocampus. This shrinkage not only diminishes its effectiveness, but can also cause a fixation on the traumatic event, even during sleep. This is what causes nightmares for people with PTS. The amygdala becomes overactive after experiencing trauma, which changes a person’s threat perception and leads to hypervigilance. This also leads to heightened levels of anxiety and hypersensitivity to being surprised, causing someone to startle more easily. The prefrontal cortex is less active after enduring trauma. When this happens, it leads to irritability, withdrawal from others/society, and a numbing of emotions. 

This is the science behind why PTS occurs, and by better understanding and identifying the areas of the brain that are affected, we can learn how to target and treat PTS accordingly. Our Intrepid Spirit Centers have been treating the invisible wounds of war since we opened our the National Intrepid Center of Excellence in 2010 and continues today through our Intrepid Spirit Centers. A range of treatments from art and music to sleep and vision therapies help our service members combat the effects of these invisible wounds. With your help, these military heroes are living full and productive lives moving forward after bravely and selflessly serving their country. These facilities are completely funded by public donations like yours. Help IFHF continue our mission to heal our heroes with a donation.

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Posted on June 28 2021 in Blog

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