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What Is Trauma and How Does It Affect the Brain?

Traumatic experiences activate our fight or flight response, flooding our brains with chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline. Over time, repeated trauma exposure actually changes our brain structure and function. The prefrontal cortex, responsible for focus and rational thinking, goes offline. The amygdala, the brain's fear center, becomes hyperactive.


This neurological rewiring can make you constantly feel on high alert. You may struggle to concentrate or make decisions. Trauma also impacts memory formation and emotional regulation. You may experience intrusive thoughts or memories of the traumatic event. Your moods may feel unpredictable or hard to control.


To cope, you may find yourself constantly busy or distracted. Multitasking becomes your default mode as a way to avoid painful emotions or memories. But this trapped feeling and the physical and mental health impacts of chronic stress take a major toll.


Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn: The Physiological Response to Trauma

When trauma occurs, your body goes into survival mode. This is known as the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response.


Fight

Your body releases adrenaline, preparing you to confront the threat head-on. Your heart rate increases, your senses sharpen, and your muscles tense up, ready to take action. This response can motivate you to defend yourself or others in dangerous situations.


Flight

Adrenaline is also released in the flight response, but instead of confronting the threat, you flee from it. Your heart pounds, breathing quickens, and your legs may feel weak as your body urges you to escape danger as fast as possible. While this reaction can save lives, it may also lead to avoidance of trauma reminders going forward.


Freeze

Some people experience a “deer in the headlights” freeze when threatened. Your body is flooded with fear, paralyzing you momentarily. Your thinking brain shuts down, senses numb, and muscles stiffen. The freeze response is often involuntary, though it can put you in more danger if you're unable to act. With the help of a professional, this response can often be overcome.


Fawn

The fawn response involves people-pleasing and trying to placate a perceived threat in order to avoid conflict.


Trauma responses are automatic physiological reactions, not character flaws or weaknesses. Be gentle with yourself if you experience them. With time and treatment, trauma responses can be managed and overcome, allowing you to feel in control of your body and reactions.


Some Tips for Managing Trauma Responses

(these should not replace help from a professional)



Make a schedule and prioritize

Sit down and make a schedule for your day including time for focused work, breaks, and transitions between tasks. Prioritize important work and deadlines. Break down tasks into "bite sized" goals. Don't feel pressure to accomplish everything at once.


Start with small habits

Start by choosing 30 minutes - 1 hour a day or a few days a week to practice focused work. Turn off all distractions during that time. Build up your ability to focus for longer periods. Reward yourself when you meet your goals.


Take meaningful breaks

When you do take breaks, avoid looking at bright screens. Do some light exercise like walking around, gentle yoga, or stretching. Getting your blood flowing will rejuvenate your mind and body. Staying hydrated and fed will also help you stay focused, so have snacks available.


Reflect on What Went Well

At the end of each day, take time to reflect on what worked. Don't be too hard on yourself if you don't meet your own expectations. Building a new habit takes practice and patience. Give yourself grace and start fresh the next day.



Practicing Mindfulness to Heal From Trauma

Trauma can have lasting impacts on your mind and body, including conditioning you to constantly feel on high alert. This can manifest as difficulty focusing or an inability to be present in the moment. Practicing mindfulness techniques helps retrain your mind and nervous system to relax into the present.


Focus on your breath

One of the simplest ways to become more mindful is by paying attention to your breathing. Find a quiet place to sit comfortably, close your eyes, and take slow, deep breaths. Focus on how the air feels moving in and out. Start with just 5 to 10 minutes a day of this simple meditation. As your mind wanders, gently guide your focus back to your breath. This helps build your ability to be fully present.


Do one thing at a time

Multi-tasking is a habit for many, but it exacerbates feelings of stress & overwhelm. Make an effort to do one thing at a time; especially routine tasks like brushing your teeth, showering or eating meals. Pay close attention to the sensations and be fully present in the moment.


Spend time in nature

Getting outside in nature helps shift your mind and body into a state of calm. Go for a walk in the park, put your bare feet in the grass, sit under a tree, stargaze at night or simply open a window to let fresh air in. Focus on the sounds, smells and sights around you. Feel the warmth of the sun or a cool breeze on your skin. Take in the beauty that exists in the simple details.


References:

Bryant, R. A. (2021). A critical review of mechanisms of adaptation to trauma: Implications for early interventions for posttraumatic stress disorder. Clinical psychology review, 85, 101981.


Perryman, K., Blisard, P., & Moss, R. (2019). Using creative arts in trauma therapy: The neuroscience of healing. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 41(1), 80-94.


Truss, K., Liao Siling, J., Phillips, L., Eastwood, O., & Bendall, S. (2023). Barriers to young people seeking help for trauma: A qualitative analysis of Internet forums. Psychological trauma: theory, research, practice, and policy, 15(S1), S163.



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