• Denisa Millette

A Mini Insight into a Traumatized Brain

All healing starts with self-awareness.

The brain can undergo many changes when a person experiences trauma.

According to the leading trauma expert and a neuroscientist, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, there are three parts of the brain that are most affected by trauma and that can explain the changes in a trauma survivor’s behavior.

The Three Crucial Parts of The Brain Most Impacted by Trauma

  1. Amygdala – an almond-shaped mass of gray matter inside both hemisphere that is part of your primitive brain and that is responsible for making you feel afraid. When functioning normally, amygdala successfully determines threats, forms and processes memories about emotional experiences, triggers stress response, and regulates your emotions. However, when impacted by trauma, amygdala’s threat response is off, which impacts ability to cope with stress, regulate emotions, and forming attachments with others. Amygdala becomes hyperactive when triggered by memories or images of past trauma and produces irrational responses.

  • Thalamus – all input that comes to your brain through your sensory organs (ears, eyes, nose, skin and body) come together and are become integrated, full memories on the thalamus. When you are triggered and highly aroused, your thalamus becomes dysfunctional, leaving your brain with mixed, un-integrated sensations, images, thoughts, and so on, making you feel lost and confused unable to understand or put together what really happened to you. 

  • Prefrontal self-experience part of the brain – the size, activation, and neural connections of this part of your brain are responsible for your reactivity to your environment. The more complex trauma, the more dysfunctional reactivity develops. However, this is also the part of the brain that is the most neuroplastic and can be rewired and recondition through practices and treatments such as neurofeedback, psychotherapy, mindfulness, art therapy, and yoga practice

The three main functional differences between a healthy brain and a traumatized brain

  1. Enhanced Threat Perception System

As a trauma survivor, you may tend to see danger where other people see manageable challenges or problems. This change takes place in the primitive part of the brain, the very core, your survival brain. This is the part of your brain that ensures you are okay and safe and away from danger.

  • A Sense of Timing and Relevance is off.

This means that when you are triggered, it is difficult for you to distinguish between here and now and then and there. In other words, what is relevant right now and what you can dismiss. Your filtering system is off which makes it difficult for you to fully engage in the present moment or just ordinary situations.

  • Self-sensing System is Broken.

This system that runs through the midline structure of the brain and allows you to be attuned and experience yourself is offline or damaged. This tends to be a defensive mechanism that protects you from feeling and experiencing pain – for example, when you are in a state of fear, your heart is beating too fast, you have trouble breathing, your body feels bad. To stop or numb this internal response, most trauma survivors will do anything they can, so they will start self-medicating with drugs or alcohol to cope. Unfortunately, when you dampen your self-sensing system, you are also dampening your reaction and response to positive experiences, such as pleasure, sensuality, excitement, and social connections with others.


National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine

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