How Trauma Affects the Brain

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis completed medical school at The University of Mississippi Medical Center and residency in general psychiatry in 2003. He completed a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 2005. Following this, he served as Chief Medical Officer for 10 years of Brentwood Behavioral Healthcare a private health system including a 105-bed hospital, residential treatment, and intensive outpatient services.

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Trauma is any experience that overwhelms the senses and creates psychological distress and fear. According to the National Center for PTSD, nearly every person will experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime, and many people go on to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Various factors can increase the likelihood of trauma; men and women are equally affected, but men are more likely to experience combat trauma, while women are more likely to experience sexual or physical assault or domestic violence during childhood or adulthood.

Whether you’ve experienced trauma directly or have been observing it, it can be hard to know how to help someone deal with the after-effects of traumatic events in their life. While there are many factors that play into how a person’s brain will be affected, there are specific signs to look out for when assessing how trauma has changed the way someone thinks, feels, and responds to their environment.

It’s important to understand what PTSD is and how it affects the brain so you can get help if you need it. Let’s take a look at how trauma affects the brain to better understand how this disorder develops.

What Is Trauma?

Trauma is a type of stress that occurs when we experience an event or series of events outside our normal experience. This can include physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, witnessing violence, being involved in a natural disaster, or living through a car accident. When we experience trauma, it can have a profound effect on our brain.

It’s important to note that trauma doesn’t have to involve a single, life-threatening event. For example, if you’ve been repeatedly subjected to verbal abuse by your partner and their constant put-downs cause anxiety and trigger memories of past abusive relationships, that can be considered traumatic.

While not all types of trauma are physical or sexual in nature, it is common for someone who has experienced sexual or physical trauma to also experience other types of trauma as well – particularly emotional traumas like betrayal or neglect. And some individuals who experience mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder or anxiety disorders may also face other forms of psychological harm and develop PTSD.

What Is the Brain’s Response to Trauma?

When a person experiences trauma, the brain goes into survival mode. The brain stem is responsible for basic life functions like breathing and heart rate. The limbic system controls emotions. The cortex is responsible for thinking and decision-making.

With all these parts of the brain trying to work together to keep a person alive, it can be difficult to sort out what happened during an event. There are many different symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) that show up in different people.

For example, some people may have flashbacks or nightmares about their traumatic event, while others may experience anxiety or depression when triggered by certain situations or sounds that remind them of their trauma. One way PTSD can affect the brain is by shrinking certain areas that control memory or emotion, depending on how severe someone’s symptoms are.

What Types of Traumas Affect the Brain?

There are many different types of traumas that can affect the brain. These include physical traumas, such as a car accident or a fall; emotional traumas, such as abuse or neglect; and psychological traumas, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Psychological Trauma

Psychological trauma is a type of damage to the mind that occurs as a result of a severely distressing event. Trauma can be caused by overwhelming stress that exceeds one’s ability to cope or by experiencing an event that threatens one’s sense of safety. Trauma can also result from witnessing someone else experience a traumatic event.

When the brain experiences trauma, it can be difficult to process and cope with the emotions and memories associated with the event. This can lead to symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, and depression.

Trauma can also cause physical symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, and gastrointestinal problems. If you have experienced psychological trauma, it is important to seek professional help so that you can begin to heal and recover.


The amygdala is responsible for the fight-or-flight response, and it is this response that is most affected by trauma. When someone experiences a traumatic event, the amygdala is activated and causes the person to feel fear and anxiety.

This can lead to flashbacks, nightmares, and panic attacks. The amygdala may also be hyperactivated in people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This means that they may startle easily, have difficulty sleeping, and be constantly on guard.


When someone experiences a traumatic event, the hippocampus is one of the areas of the brain that is most affected. The hippocampus is responsible for emotion regulation, memory, and stress response. Research has shown that the hippocampus is smaller in people who have experienced trauma, and this can lead to problems with all of the functions that the hippocampus controls.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs when the person continues to experience flashbacks or nightmares of the event they went through, which could indicate that the hippocampus is not functioning properly.

Prefrontal Cortex

Psychological trauma can have a lasting impact on the brain. The prefrontal cortex is the most well-known area of the brain that is affected by trauma. This area of the brain is responsible for executive functioning, which includes planning, decision-making, and regulating emotions.

Trauma can cause damage to the prefrontal cortex, which can lead to problems with executive functioning. This can manifest in various ways, such as difficulty making decisions, impulsive behavior, and emotional outbursts. In severe cases, damage to the prefrontal cortex can lead to psychosis.

Types of Psychological Traumas

Psychological trauma is a type of damage to the mind that occurs as a result of a severely distressing event. Trauma can be caused by overwhelming stress that exceeds one’s ability to cope or by a single, very stressful, or violent event. There are four main types of psychological trauma: intentional trauma, complex trauma, natural disaster-related trauma, and vicarious trauma.

Traumatic Brain Injuries

Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) can cause a wide range of short- and long-term effects, depending on the severity of the injury. TBI can lead to physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral changes. The brain is very sensitive to injury, and even a mild TBI can cause problems. A more severe TBI can be devastating. The effects of TBI can be subtle or dramatic and can last for a few days or for the rest of a person’s life.


A concussion is a type of brain injury that can cause changes in the way your brain functions. Concussions are caused by a blow to the head or a jolt to the body that causes the brain to move back and forth inside the skull.

This can damage brain cells and cause chemical changes in the brain. Concussions can cause various symptoms, including headaches, dizziness, nausea, confusion, memory problems, and sleep problems.

In some cases, concussions can also lead to more serious problems, such as seizures, difficulty speaking, and coma. If you think you or someone you know has a concussion, it’s important to see a doctor immediately.


Edema is an injury to the brain caused by an accumulation of fluid in the tissue. This can cause an increase in pressure on the brain, which can lead to brain trauma. Brain trauma can cause various symptoms, including headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, seizures, memory loss, and even death. If you have suffered a head injury, it is important to seek medical attention immediately, as edema can be life-threatening.

As with most head injuries, edema can occur due to a direct blow to your head or another type of injury that impairs blood flow. For example, if you have suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident and you have lost consciousness, there is a risk that blood flow to your brain has been disrupted.

Diffuse Axonal Injury

When a traumatic event occurs, it can cause a diffuse axonal injury (DAI). This type of brain injury is caused by a sudden, severe force that results in the tearing of nerve fibers throughout the brain. DAI can occur when the head is suddenly and violently shaken, as can happen in a car accident or a fall.

The symptoms of DAI can be mild, moderate, or severe, depending on the extent of damage to the brain. Mild symptoms may include headache, dizziness, and difficulty concentrating. Moderate symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, and difficulty speaking. Severe symptoms may include coma, paralysis, and death.


A hematoma is a bruise, and brain trauma can occur when a hematoma forms on the brain. When this happens, it can cause several problems. For example, the hematoma can compress brain tissue, which can lead to damage.

In addition, a hematoma can cause inflammation and swelling, which can also damage brain tissue. Finally, a hematoma can disrupt the brain’s normal blood flow and cerebrospinal fluid, leading to further problems.

Skull Fracture

A skull fracture is a break in one of the bones of the skull. It can cause brain trauma by allowing the brain to move around inside the skull, damaging blood vessels and nerves. A skull fracture can also cause a hematoma, which is a collection of blood outside of the blood vessels. This can put pressure on the brain and damage it.

Depending on where a skull fracture is located, it can cause different types of brain trauma. A fracture at or near one of the cranial sutures is particularly dangerous because it causes compression damage. This can cause swelling and bleeding in both halves of your brain, which can be life-threatening.

In some cases, only one side of your brain is affected; in others, both sides are damaged by either bleeding or bruising. If you experience sudden and severe headaches after a skull fracture with no other symptoms—or you have any type of head injury with additional symptoms such as nausea or vomiting—seek immediate medical care to avoid further damage to your brain and nervous system.

How is Brain Trauma Diagnosed

Most people who experience brain trauma will never have any lasting effects. However, some people may develop long-term problems. There are many ways to diagnose brain trauma, but a CT scan or MRI is the most common. These imaging tests can show any bleeding or swelling in the brain. They can also show if there are any areas of the brain that have been damaged.

In cases of mild brain trauma, symptoms can start immediately or appear after a few days. More severe cases can take longer to appear, and sometimes they don’t show up until weeks or months later.

The effects of brain trauma depend on several factors, including how quickly it occurred, whether any internal bleeding or swelling occurred, and what parts of your brain were affected. More severe cases generally lead to a longer recovery time and a greater risk for long-term issues.

How To Heal Trauma Within the Brain

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to how to heal brain trauma. However, there are some general principles that can help. First, it is important to understand that trauma affects everyone differently. Second, giving yourself time to heal and process the trauma is important.

Third, finding a support system for people who understand what you are going through is important. Fourth, being patient with yourself and your healing process is important. Fifth, talking about your trauma with someone who can help you process it is important.

Sixth, it is important to take care of yourself physically and emotionally. Finally, it is important to know that you can heal from trauma and that you are not alone in this process.

Available Treatment Options for Brain Trauma

There are several treatment options for brain trauma, depending on the severity of the injury. For milder injuries, rest and over-the-counter pain medication may be enough to allow the brain to heal.

More severe injuries may require hospitalization and intensive medical care. Surgery may sometimes be necessary to remove or repair damaged tissue. Physical therapy and rehabilitation can also be helpful in aiding recovery from brain trauma.

Long-term treatment for trauma can include cognitive behavioral therapy, a proven technique used to manage symptoms. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps patients identify and challenge negative thought patterns associated with depression and anxiety while improving coping skills.

Medication can also be prescribed to improve overall mental health and relieve specific mood disorders that often accompany brain trauma. CBT and medication have been shown to positively affect brain trauma victims.

Most cases of mild to moderate brain trauma will resolve on their own over time. Severe brain trauma, however, requires professional intervention to make a full recovery. Despite its severity, brain trauma is not an automatic death sentence.

The Healing Process

When someone experiences trauma, it can have a lasting effect on their brain. The experience of trauma can change the way the brain functions and affects the individual’s mental health. It may take years for symptoms to surface and decades for them to go away completely.

Symptoms include depression, anxiety, aggression, emotional numbness, fearfulness, and general instability in one’s life.

The most important part of healing from trauma is having a safe space to process what happened without being judged or criticized by others. It is helpful to keep a journal so that the individual can write down how they are feeling during this period to make sense of what is happening to them mentally and emotionally.

Therapy is also very beneficial for an individual going through this process. They can talk about what happened with an unbiased person who will listen patiently and not judge them no matter what comes up during the session.

Sometimes, for someone who has gone through significant trauma, medications such as antidepressants can be helpful in balancing out mood swings and stabilizing their brain chemistry so they can think clearly.

How To Know When to Seek Help

If you or someone you know has experienced a traumatic event, it is important to be aware of the potential for long-term effects. Trauma can cause changes in the brain that lead to difficulties with memory, focus, and emotional regulation. If you are struggling to cope with the aftermath of a traumatic experience, it may be helpful to seek professional help. Here are some signs that you may benefit from seeking help.

  • Hyperarousal is excessive arousal in response to a perceived threat or danger that is out of proportion to or unpredictable from an individual’s experience of stressors. This can manifest as insomnia, irritability, poor concentration, and an exaggerated startle response (e.g., easily startled by noises). Hyperarousal symptoms can resemble anxiety symptoms.
  • Dissociation is disconnecting from what one feels, observes, thinks about, or does during times of intense fear, helplessness, or horror. The ability to check out during traumatic events enables people to survive extreme trauma.
  • Emotional Numbing is a difficulty experiencing emotions and numbness in response to significant losses or personal tragedies.
  • Reexperiencing Symptoms are memories, flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts about a previous traumatic event; feeling unsafe; trouble sleeping because of bad dreams; distress when reminders occur; feeling jumpy around others who look like the person who caused harm.
  • Avoidance Symptoms: refusal to go near things associated with trauma, like certain places or situations.

How Defining Wellness Can Help Those That Are Experiencing Trauma to The Brain

Wellness centers like Defining Wellness can help those dealing with brain trauma in various ways. By providing a safe and supportive environment, these centers can help people begin the process of healing.

Additionally, trauma counselors can provide support and guidance as people work through the challenges of recovery. In addition to counseling, many addiction centers also offer programs and services to help people build new skills and find purpose in their lives. These services can be vital in helping people recover from brain trauma and build a foundation for a new life.

Defining Wellness offers many different therapies to help those suffering from trauma. Some therapies include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, Exposure Therapy, and Group Therapy.

Each of these therapies can help people in different ways, and it is important to find the one that works best for you. If you are suffering from trauma, please reach out for help.

Finally, by providing opportunities for people to meet others dealing with similar problems, these facilities can help facilitate growth and connection. While trauma cannot be healed alone, a support network of like-minded individuals can play an important role in building confidence and creating a sense of meaning in life. These bonds can also be an excellent source of encouragement when times get tough.

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