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Brain Damage From Emotional Trauma

Brain damage or trauma from emotional traumatic events is very real. Emotional trauma “rewires” the brain and in some cases ‘short circuits’ the brain’s ‘wires’.

Stress can be good and bad. The right amount of stress and tension on a guitar string and you can make music.

Too much stress on that same string and it will snap.

emotional trauma effects

Trauma & The Brain and Stress

The brain handles stress in a similar fashion. Stress hormones impact the brain chemistry including the prefrontal cortex, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, hippocampal volume, blood flow, brain volume, and in general all aspects of the brain.

The brain is miraculously durable in the face of trauma, and the brain is at the same time fragile when it comes to physical trauma and emotional trauma.

A properly cited open access article distributed shares about the consequences of repressed emotions so trauma to the brain from the effects of traumatic stress, as well as trauma, can be experienced by the brain by simply repressing emotions.

The Brain Leading To Brain Injury Trauma

We are coming to grasp that psychological trauma physically impacts the brain immediately following an injury or trauma, and over time. Being able to analyze metabolic activity and understand what it means is a key part of the puzzle, along with looking at changes in brain volume and activity based on blood flow.

Plus the increased cortisol associated with emotional trauma, brain trauma, posttraumatic stress disorder, or another type of trauma or traumatic event, all of which have negative effects on the prefrontal cortex and decision making.

In light of the goal of better analyzing episodes of a traumatic event and how that plays a role in mental health effects, the effects of trauma mean that emotions play a significant role in brain issues that are negative.

But the same brain that is impacted negatively by emotions has the capacity to experience non-trauma events and the brain can learn to better cope with symptoms of anxiety and stress and depression.

All of the symptoms of stress, anxiety symptoms brought on by brain trauma, or emotional brain trauma with time may be a thing of the past as we discover more about the brain and the effects of trauma and how the brain deals with the effects of trauma.

depression and anxiety and sad

Anxiety and Stress Symptoms

Anxiety and stress symptoms are often easy to identify. Here are a few aspects of anxiety, and be sure to take note of how a few of these symptoms may be amplified by the prefrontal cortex (the decision maker in the brain) that has decreased function capacity:

  • Feeling nervous

  • Feeling out of control and restless

  • Feeling tense.

  • Having a sense of impending danger

  • Sense of panic

  • Feeling of gloom and doom.

  • Feeling weak or tired

  • Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry

  • Having an increased heart rate

  • Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)

  • Sweating

  • Trembling

  • Paranoia

emotional trauma takes over

What Can Be Done To Learn More About The Brain?

There are a number of approaches that can help inform our understanding of altered brain networks, a crucial conceptual tool for seeing the brain as a dynamic, measurable system; as a framework for molding brain activity back to a non-PTSD state.

There are a number of brain health technologies that allow for doctors and scientists that would fall in the camp of ‘brain people’ to learn how the brain adapts, relearns, and repairs after emotional trauma. This article will cover those brain innovations later in this article.

Better Ways To Learn About The Brain

Imaging of the brain with fMRI, Cat scans of the brain, University studies of the brain, Clinical trials on the topic of the brain, and the effects of trauma and stress on the brain all are ways to continue to gain ground in the fight to understand the effects of trauma and how the brain responds and reacts.

Brain meditation and brain visualization exercises have proven great exercises for the brain. In the same way, the effects of trauma hindered the brain’s ability to function properly, visualization and meditation to calm stress and the effects of trauma are effective for a number of people dealing with trauma, whether it is physical trauma or emotional trauma.

Trauma Has Silent Victims

The silent victims of traumatic stress and trauma are the loved ones who did not have the specific trauma happen to them but they experience trauma and emotional trauma due to watching someone they love and care for dealing with trauma. The mental health challenges for the caregiver of the person who had the original trauma are significant.

Brain Trauma Has Ripple Effects

Trauma has a ripple effect just like if you throw a rock into a pond, the ripples go wide and trauma ripples through the families of the person the same way.

How Traumatic Stress May Affect The Brain

How past trauma may have trauma effects on the brain leading to severe stress, heightened fear, and increased irritation. This might also make it harder for those suffering to calm down or even sleep.

Trauma on the brain such as a physical trauma, not just emotional trauma will actually induce mental health challenges in many cases. Trauma on the brain in military exposures are often a component to PTSD.

Posttraumatic stress disorder PTSD and Mental health

Posttraumatic stress disorder PTSD can come from past trauma and have lasting negative effects on a person’s mental health.

Childhood traumatic stress response and really any childhood trauma including trauma on the brain, not just a traumatic experience that was emotional trauma, can have a lasting impact on mental health.

Posttraumatic stress disorder may afflict trauma victims who have had physical and emotional trauma exposure. The overlapping effects of trauma amplify the negative effects of traumatic stress.

Brain Traumatic Stress, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse

The mental health stress results in more fear and too often may lead to substance abuse. And that causes a spiral-down effect of mental health challenges, compounded with traumatic stress because substance abuse leads to decreased function of the brain.

And the decreased function of the brain may leave the person fighting a wave of emotional memories and traumatic reminders which leads them to more substance abuse. And the spiral starts again.

This is why post-traumatic stress disorder and poor mental health can lead to their own traumatic stress and traumatic events.

The trauma affects once again trickles down or ripples out in many ways for the person dealing with substance abuse.

emotional pain causes physical pains
"studies have shown that in people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder PTSD, their hippocampal volume is different than the hippocampal volume of people who may not have had had trauma on the brain or traumatic memories."

Emotional Trauma and The Hippocampus

The hippocampus is part of the brain called the limbic system in the brain. It is mostly responsible for storing and retrieving memories, while also differentiating between past and present experiences.

How trauma affects the brain, the hippocampus may be physically affected; studies have shown that in people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder PTSD, their hippocampal volume is different than the hippocampal volume of people who may not have had had trauma on the brain or traumatic memories.

Post traumatic stress disorder is brought on by emotional traumatic stress or a traumatic event or a series of traumatic events

The Brain and the Amygdala

The amygdala is the main emotional center of the brain. An overactive amygdala means the emotional system of the brain is taking over the brain and that is good when you need to have the fight or flight response, but it is bad if that ‘button’ is turned on all of the time.

The brain’s state at rest is not available and the anterior cingulate cortex, which is a key hub in networks for emotion and thought, learning, conflict resolution, and, notably, top-down control of the limbic system via direct connections with the amygdala is overworked leading to poor functions.

feeling hopeless

These brain areas are involved in altered network activity for people who suffer from PTSD, with changes seen in the brain’s resting “ default mode network ” and the difference in what people with PTSD look for in the environment, in the “salience network a mixed group of patients with mostly chronic PTSD, with a variety of changes throughout the brain.

The areas of the brain identified to be different in PTSD include the hippocampus, which deals with our memory and sense of self; the amygdala, the main emotion center of the brain emotional systems (limbic system) and a key player in the brain’s state at rest; and the anterior cingulate cortex, which is a key hub in networks for emotion and thought, learning, conflict resolution, and, notably, top-down control of the limbic system via direct connections with the amygdala.

Fear Responses The Limbic System and an Overactive Amygdala

Chronic stress hormones that cause chronic PTSD symptoms come from emotional traumatic stress and emotional memories. Past traumatic stressors used to be great for survival instincts because psychological trauma and fear responses used to be the difference between survival when a Sabre Tooth tiger was hunting our ancestors.

The ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the entire brain structure would experience trauma and put traumatic experiences into the brain for future survival instincts.

The traumatic reminders and the trauma exposure created an auto-response that started retrieving memories in a flash and the brain chemistry actually increased function of the brain areas to be in a constant state of more fear which increased cortisol and adrenalin with the goal of survival, but the negative effects of traumatic stressors came with the survival instincts.

The brain is made to solve problems, but brain activity does not always mean accomplishment.

When we experience trauma in the present or even past trauma, the brain shuts down all nonessential systems and activates the sympathetic nervous system and the mammalian brain.

To help us, we have a stress response to survive the trauma, the brain releases stress hormones and activates the flight or fight response. As the threat passes, the parasympathetic nervous system reactivates and all three parts of the brain start functioning again. Research shows that traumatic stress can interfere with this process, trapping the brain in “ survival mode .”

Post-traumatic stress disorder from traumatic events

In a recent article in Neuroscience, journal of Nature Reviews Neuroscience, psychologist Dr. Michael Saperstein showed that early life stress can cause lasting mental health problems.

In his study, Saperstein and colleagues asked participants to solve difficult word puzzles that they had been given prior to taking part in the experiment.

The people who solved these puzzles faster than others did so because they were exposed to stress earlier in life. This was true for all groups, regardless of their IQ or intelligence level.

Emotional Trauma on the brain

Physical and emotional trauma traumatic stressors are essentially tied together. For instance, if you have physical traumatic stress then it will impact you emotionally. It could lead to post-traumatic stress disorder PTSD symptoms or other traumatic stress.

And the same can happen if you have an emotional trauma on the brain and it could lead to physical trauma in terms of your brain, but also it could lead to physical ailments including:

  • High blood pressure

  • Headaches

  • Blurred vision, issues with your

  • The sympathetic nervous system

  • Vagus nervous system challenges

  • Colon issues

  • and the list goes on and on

poor decision making

Physical and emotional trauma on the brain

Physical and emotional trauma on the brain is a two-way street that is similar to the adage of “what came first, the chicken or the egg?”. It really doesn’t matter because either way, you end up with the same result. Chronic stress issues.

How the Brain Deals With Chronic Stress (example – chronic PTSD)

Chronic stress from past and present experiences leave traumatic memories that may impact your:

  • The parasympathetic nervous system,

  • Brain functions,

  • Sleep disturbances,

  • Limbic system,

  • Blood flow

  • Neural circuitry,

  • Hippocampal volume,

  • Stress hormones,

  • Stress response, and

  • Overactive amygdala

All of these effects lead to decreased function of your brain and your life.

Brain Injury and Chronic stress hormones that create Chronic PTSD Symptoms.

The impact of complex PTSD, PTSD, and Chronic PTSD have staggering consequences for the patient and their loved ones. According to NHS.uk here are some of the things to look for:

  • feelings of shame or guilt.

  • difficulty controlling your emotions.

  • periods of losing attention and concentration (dissociation)

  • physical symptoms, such as headaches, dizziness, chest pains, and stomach aches.

  • cutting yourself off from friends and family.

  • relationship difficulties.

Traumatic Events, Emotional traumatic stress, and the Prefrontal cortex

The effects of trauma on the brain also extend to the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is responsible for executive functioning or higher-level thinking and reasoning. People with Post traumatic stress disorder PTSD have been found to have decreased function and activation of the prefrontal cortex when exposed to traumatic reminders.

This may account for any irrational fears that trauma victims have trouble overcoming. Whether subtle or significant, trauma changes the brain in several ways and can lead to lasting negative effects.

According to neuroimaging studies, the main areas of the brain impacted by trauma and traumatic events are the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

These are part of a stress circuit in the brain which may explain why traumatic stress continues long after the event is over. The changes in these parts of the brain may also be responsible for specific symptoms that occur when someone has Post traumatic stress disorder PTSD.

Quality Decisions Often Gets You Quality Results, But When The Prefrontal Cortex Has Decreased Function The Results Can Be Devastating

The prefrontal cortex must be ‘firing on all cylinders in order to make good decisions in life. Then the prefrontal cortex has decreased function it shows up in the quality or lack of quality decisions someone with posttraumatic stress disorder makes.

Trauma affects so many elements of the brain, not just the prefrontal cortex. But the prefrontal cortex plays such a large role in life that when the prefrontal cortex is not ‘up to par’ then the ability of the cognitive decision making to do positive things to combat posttraumatic stress disorder and take the steps required to fight or flow with emotional memories is drastically reduced.

As with other aspects of emotional trauma, the trauma affects feed each other with challenging negative effects and downward spiraling loops.

The need for the increased function of the prefrontal cortex often makes professionals see the need for an antidepressant may and the antidepressant exposure has been correlated with larger orbitofrontal volume. The goal is better mental health. But the goal of better mental health is often like poking a balloon, when you poke in one side it comes out on the other side, and or the balloon pops.

Several mental health studies have looked at functional brain imaging response to antidepressants for mental health and specifically depression.

Single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) blood flow studies in depression showed that antidepressants increased anterior cingulate, right putamen, and right thalamus function. SPECT Xenon-133 studies showed reduced prefrontal cortex function at baseline in depression, with treatment responders showing reduced perfusion in the prefrontal cortex compared with the prefrontal cortex of non-responders after treatment.

Mental health challenges like depression and anxiety brought on by a poor decision the patient made due to the decreased function of the prefrontal cortex lead to feeling down even more.

"The goal is better mental health. But the goal of better mental health is often like poking a balloon, when you poke in one side it comes out on the other side, and or the balloon pops."

Past and present experiences

Trauma affects your sympathetic nervous system. The traumatic experience can dramatically impact brain function regardless of when the traumatic stress or trauma occurs.

Trauma victims that are younger with a developing brain have developed PTSD symptoms and the same goes for older people and the effects of trauma.

Mental Health Protocols Keep Getting Better

There have been some advancements in mental health therapies along with other newer protocols to help symptoms from early trauma, including childhood trauma, that gives hope that in time treatment early can help align the limbic system and calm the overactive amygdala and fear responses to intrusive thoughts for people.

How does the brain heal from emotional trauma?

How is it that a person can be in such an extreme state of distress and still function at a normal level? The final answers to these questions are yet to be discovered. But it is still a miracle of nature as to the healing, neuroplasticity, and resilience of the human brain.

Is there a way to treat emotional trauma resulting in brain damage without resorting to drugs or surgery?

There are a number of therapies that are currently in use to help patients in a more natural manner.

Drugs are valuable to help patients in several ways, but it is not the cure or the answer in the long run.

This is not addressing mental health where there are chemical imbalances where drugs are in pursuit of aiding to create a more stable chemically balanced brain. But the emotional trauma and the brain damage associated with the emotional trauma on the brain is being addressed by several therapies and the use of virtual reality to help the patient have experiential relearning is something of interest for this field of rehab.

life can be a blur

What are the effects of emotional trauma?

The condition is called emotional trauma, which is a form of brain damage; it is a result of emotional upheaval. This kind of trauma can be either physical (like being run over by a car), or mental (like being in an abusive relationship).

These can create a very negative effect on you mentally for years after the event. Just as if there was trauma on the brain, the damage can be devastating.

In general, it does not change your memory and cognitive ability but leaves you feeling empty and lost. It can lead to depression and anxiety. It may cause you to feel angry, afraid, and guilty as well as have difficulty making decisions and staying committed.  

It affects your relationship with others. You may also develop poor self-esteem, worry about being alone, or be more prone to depression which may lead you to rely on alcohol or drugs more than other people.  

Emotional trauma can also cause people to become more sensitive and susceptible to negative emotions such as anger or fear, while at the same time causing them extreme anxiety or panic attacks if they are experiencing intense emotions like fear or anger.  

It can affect relationships in many ways:  for example, it often leads couples in abusive relationships to separate from each other due to their inability to communicate effectively (and thus avoid further abuse).

Physical Medicine Long term disability

How does the brain heal after emotional trauma?

How does the brain heal after emotional trauma? The brain’s neuroplasticity is a gift of healing and it may also be why emotional trauma can be so damaging. The power of emotional trauma can ‘burn’ memories into the brain causing brain damage, depression, anxiety, and more challenges.

How long does emotional trauma take to heal?

If you’ve ever been in a car accident, or if you’ve had a child drown, there’s a good chance that you’ve been exposed to traumatic events. Each of these experiences has the potential to be psychologically devastating. The brain is the organ that regulates the way we think, feel, and remembers. But how long does it take for emotional trauma to heal?

An international team of researchers from Lund University in Sweden and from Uppsala University in Sweden (one of which is my former research advisor) has found evidence that emotional trauma can take up to six years for some people.

Using a method called functional MRI (fMRI) they were able to show that when people are exposed to very distressing experiences like an accident or being separated from loved ones, their brains respond differently than when they are not exposed to such events.

childhood emotional trauma can cause brain damageca

The Brain People

Neurology or the brain people have made incredible advancements. They are brain people because they study the brain, but also because they are truly brain people because they are so smart.

The study showed that the more distressing either experience was the more activity in certain areas of the brain increased. This increase in activity was seen regardless of whether or not the person had been traumatized themselves.

In other words, even if someone’s brain was not traumatized by a traumatic event and simply observed another person experiencing a traumatic event, their brain’s response would be different than someone who had experienced the same traumatic event themselves.

However, there was no correlation between whether or not people had experienced trauma and their increased brain activity seen in these studies — it didn’t matter whether one person had experienced something traumatic or not — but it did matter whether they were exposed to this type of experience before developing this heightened brain response:

“Our study shows that exposure before the development of cognitive changes may be crucial for understanding why certain types of experience are so harmful and how we can mitigate such damage,” said first author Sune Lundin-Pedersen.

“Brain scans showed that those who were traumatized were more sensitive than those who were not exposed beforehand, suggesting that at least some parts of their brains may have developed new connections as a result of their experience, which could ultimately help them cope with future unpleasant experiences.”

How do you recover from emotional trauma?

One of the most common causes of brain damage and depression is emotional trauma. When people are emotionally traumatized, their immune systems go into overdrive and can’t fight off viruses and infection.

During the most difficult times in our lives, we need to be aware of how our stressors affect our bodies. It’s important to realize that it is not your fault that you have been affected by emotional trauma.

Your body will often naturally heal itself after a prolonged period of stress and there is no need to rush into any type of medical care.

About The Author

Tiffany Dyar

Tiffany Dyar is the former Executive Director for The Center for Health Innovation & Implementation Science, and the former Program Manager at Regenstrief Institute.Tiffany has co-authored several medical publications including The American Journal of Critical Care  Journal of General Internal Medicine Trials Journal  Best Practices in Mental Health  & The New England Journal of Medicine

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